There are three of us. One lost everything and was born again into the night. The second was already a lady of the night when it embraced her. The third feeds on darkness and delivers anger and death.
We three disparate Shadows can only fight each other, until a larger threat looms; the threat of Rome. Together we will turn Rome from the light and make it face it's Shadow.
The Shadows of Sicily is usually updated on Thursday or Friday.
Note: This is the first draft of the story. I appreciate any feedback which will help me improve it.
The Shadows of Sicily is a partially experimental format. Although told from the perspective of three different characters, it is entirely in the first person. Who is speaking in a Chapter or Part is indicated in the title. If one character is speaking for the entire Chapter, their name will be in the Chapter title. If multiple characters speak in a Chapter, which character is speaking for a specific Part will be indicated after the Part number.
This story is largely dark. I've rated it 18A for violence, sexuality, and mature content. Mostly the violence. Please do not read it if you are under 18 - or whatever your local 'adult' age is. Try GURD 2108 instead.
Hope you enjoy!
to Daniel Kline, the first incarnation of Numerius Decentius. He said "Go for it!" I have.
I stared at her form as she squirmed beneath me. She was pretty, that was certain. I knew what it was she wanted of me, a better placement, a better job. Whatever sway I could bring to make her life less miserable. I smiled a little. It was a small thing to ask, but then what she was giving was small enough. A few moments of pleasure, easily found normally, except my wife was far too pregnant for such things just now. Hostia knew this; she was taking advantage of the situation most thoroughly. Not that I minded.
Over our rustling in the hay and her exaggerated moaning, I heard someone enter the barn below. Covering her mouth, I turned my ears to listen without slowing a beat. The sooner this was over, the better.
“Demetrius!” Neo was calling me. He sounded distressed. I grunted, annoyed. Hostia giggled against my hand. I gestured at her to be quiet. “Demetrius!” He was calling again. I glanced quickly towards him, but as he always did, Neo expended the least possible amount of effort on any task. Having not gotten my response, he shrugged and left the barn.
With a final thrust I finished what I had come here to do and rolled off Hostia. She looked over at me coyly, as though she had some witty retort prepared. “Go away,” I groaned. She stood up, curtsied mockingly towards me, brushed off her skirts and left. At least she had gone. I wanted a moment to order my thoughts before I went to see what Neo had been yelling about.
I pulled my tunic down, knocking off the hay that had gotten on it. Not that extra hay would seem unusual this time of year. The grain had to be threshed, and it usually covered me by the end of the day. I dispensed with the ladder and simply jumped to the floor of the barn. It wasn’t far, perhaps 15 feet. But then there weren’t many men prepared to jump more than twice their height without prompting.
It didn’t take me long to find Neo. He was still wandering around the farm calling my name at the top of his lungs. “Demetrius!” I walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.
“What’s all the hollering about, hmm?” I asked. Neo turned, his green-flecked eyes wide with surprise.
“Hey, Demetrius, I’ve been looking all over for you!” He slapped me hard on the back, grinning from ear to ear. “Guess what?”
“What?” I said, eager for the joke.
“She’s in labour!” He practically sang it. You’d think it was his wife, not mine, having the baby.
“Yes, silly, NOW!” I turned and ran home. I knew Neo would cover for me, though it was likely I’d be able to return to the farm quickly. I wouldn’t be needed until the child was born, and these things never seemed to go quickly.
I arrived home, sweaty and out of breath, to the sound of screaming and crying. It seemed things were further along than I had thought they would be. The midwife looked annoyed at my sudden arrival and shooed me into a corner. Why had I come here, I wondered to myself, this was not my place.
Though I’d never been at the birth of an infant before, of course, I had supervised enough animal births to now how things normally went. As I stared at my wife’s sweating form, I realized something was wrong. The midwife was not urging her to push, not allowing nature to take its course. She was, if I was not mistaken, reaching into my wife. My only assumption was that the position of the child was wrong and it needed turning. I held my breath. This was not a good sign. Now I was glad of Neo’s over enthusiasm.
A wet smell filled our small home, and I heard the sharp cry of the infant along with a deep sigh by the midwife. Her assistant came bustling over with cloths and water to clean the child, and then placed it on my wife’s heaving chest. Only then was I allowed to approach.
“Letha,” I murmured my wife’s name as I approached. “Letha?” I had never heard my voice so soft. “How is our child?”
She smiled at me and I felt my heart tighten, too large for my chest. Her pale blue eyes sparkled with joy, “Come and see for yourself Demetrius. Husband. Father.” She smiled again and squeezed my hand in her own. I peered down at the bundle in her arms. It was so small. “See your daughter?” she said, gently pushing the cloth back from the baby’s face. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
I nodded. My breath was caught in my chest, it would not come out. I touched her tiny forehead, so soft, so new. There were no words for what I felt. It was as if the Gods themselves had given us a treasure. “What shall we call her?” I breathed.
“Zoie,” Letha murmured. “Here, hold your daughter, Demetri.” I took the child, Zoie, gently from her and stared at her precious face. The midwife gestured me out of the way; there was more work to be done. Holding my daughter, staring into her sparkling blue eyes so like my own, I lost track of the world around me.
I returned to it I know not how long later when I smelt the acrid tang of blood, and heard the urgent cries of the midwife. She was sending her assistant for a healer. I blinked and strode towards her, my daughter still clutched in my arms. “What is wrong?” I demanded.
“Please sir,” the woman was frantic, “I can do nothing. When the baby turned it must have torn something inside. She is bleeding. I can do nothing.” She regarded me with fear and resignation. She was experienced, after all.
Pushing the midwife aside, I knelt beside my wife. Absently, I noted the footsteps of the midwife as she left our hut. Zoie nestled in crook of my right arm; I stroked my Letha’s forehead softly with my left hand. “Letha, hold on my love, the healer will be here soon.” When she looked up at me I saw how pale her face was, as pale as the moon reflected in the sea. Her blue eyes did not sparkle, but clung to mine like a lifeline.
“Demetri,” she whispered, “take care of Zoie. I know you’ll be a good father.” Her shaking hand reached to touch the corner of my eye, and I felt tears trickle down my cheek. “You’re crying,” Letha said in wonderment. “Don’t cry, Demetri.” Letha struggled to sit up, to comfort me, now, as she lay dying. “Demetri,” she pleaded.
“Shh, shhh, lay still Letha.” I leaned forward and rested my forehead against hers. I could barely see her face through my tears, but I felt her lips against my cheek and turned my head to kiss her. I saw her mouth the word Goodbye as I raised my head. “Goodbye,” I breathed. I was glad the midwife had gone. Hard, cold bastard; that was how most people thought of me. All except Letha and Neo, now just Neo. I was glad to be alone in my grief, and not have to deal with gawking stares.
By the time the healer arrived, Letha had passed to Hades. I sat beside her still clutching Zoie numb with pain and shock.
“Dio,” the healer called me ‘dio’, politeness in the face of death. A part of me was amused, for when was I ever dio? “Dio, do you have a nurse? A goat? Anything? The baby will need to eat soon.” I blinked and looked down at the bundle in my arms. How much time had passed I knew not, but she was right, the child would need food and I was unequipped to provide it.
“If you please, do you know anyone hiring as a nurse? I have but one goat and she has not foaled this year.” My mind raced, how was I to pay for a nurse? But still, I must have one. Zoie was all I had left of Letha and I would fight Hades himself for her. It was an odd feeling, fatherhood. Someone not even an hour old had rearranged my life, my thoughts, my dreams, my fears. She had taken the one I loved most from me; yet I could not hate her for it. I could only love her in such a way as I had never believed existed. She was all I had, and I was all she had. I would make it enough.
“Yes, dio, I do. My niece’s second born has recently passed. She could be your nurse, if you would provide her with shelter.” The healer shrugged apologetically, “You see her husband is off to war and they would take her from her house.”
I held up my hand to stop her babbling. “That seems quite satisfactory, thank you.” I would have to build another wall inside but that was a small enough price to pay for my daughter’s life. “Thank you,” I said again, a touch more graciously. “Please, do you have any other advice?” I looked at the healer with an open countenance. I needed her assistance badly.
She smiled kindly, reassured, and set to telling me a list of things: what to clothe the baby in, where she should sleep, how I should hold her. The list continued, overwhelming. “But what do I do?” I said despairingly.
Again with the smile. “Just love her, and all will be as it should.” She patted my arm and left to fetch her niece.
Over the next year and a half Zoie grew like the proverbial weed. It seemed each day when I arrived home something was new. Smiles, rolls, sitting up, crawling, standing, walking, talking. I was awed by how quickly this baby becomes a small person. Before I realized it, she was running to meet me crying “Dwaddy! Dwaddy!” in her little voice.
Time passed and my house became crowded. I was thankful for the assistance of the healer’s niece, though now my home was overrun with women. It seemed the midwife and healer had felt sympathy for me, they took to visiting frequently. I used their kindness as liberally, for it was difficult to work and raise a growing daughter.
I was often seen running between my home and the fields. Neo would meet me each morning and run at my side. Without his humour the days would have been dark with the only speck of light from Zoie’s smiling, sparkling green eyes.
On her second birthday, I took Zoie with me to the fields. I had been promoted and was in charge of my own field. ‘My own’ in that if anything went wrong, I was held responsible, not meaning that I owned it. I owned nothing, except my daughter.
Zoie ran dark hair flying behind her like a shawl, for about two minutes, kicking up dust and squealing, before turning and running headlong back at me. I must catch her, spin her not once but twice, and lift her onto my shoulders. “It’s the rules, Dwaddy,” she had told me.
The various women in their stola fetching water and food each spared a smile for Zoie and I. I praised Hestia for the warmth Zoie had brought to me.
“Dwaddy! Bird!” she pointed upwards.
“Yes Zoie,” I replied.
“Dwaddy! Unca Neo! Down, down!” She bounced urgently on my shoulders. Chuckling, I reached up, lifted her over my head, and place her on the dusty ground. Immediately, she took off running towards Neo who was blissfully unaware as he stared at a pretty girl. Or two. This heedless contemplation was short lived when Zoie crashed into his knees.
Laughing, Neo fell carefully to the ground. “Wow, by Bellona, you’re a strong one Zoie! Be careful of your old Uncle Neo.” Neo pushed himself up off the ground. He began dusting off his tunic, but Zoie tackled him again, grabbing his hands as they dusted.
“Up, up, up,” she bounced. “Zoie want up, Unca Neo! Up, up!” Her enthusiasm made the plain tan tunic she wore swirl around her ankles.
Neo grinned as he placed Zoie on his shoulders. “Off to work with Dad and Uncle Neo, then, are you Zoie? Better be sure to listen closely. Threshing can be dangerous.” I watched as Neo bounced her along on his shoulders. He enjoyed Zoie nearly as much as I did. It was unfortunate Neo had yet to become a father himself.
We passed through the village and followed the well trod path to the fields the sounds of the birds accompanying us. I always arrived early, liking my stolen moments of solitude before the onrush of workers and chores began. This morning Zoie sat on Neo’s shoulders, mesmerized. Neo whistled a child’s song, but only for his own benefit.
The temporary shed, left up during harvest time to protect the tools, was at the end of our field. It got moved around as needed, the landowner not wanting his slaves and freedmen to spend any more time away from actual work than necessary. I lifted the cover and counted out a dozen scythes.
Zoie was down and running, again. I did not see her for several minutes, and then her head was bobbing above the wheat, her arms flailing as she yelled, “Dwaddy! Look at! Look at what I found, Dwaddy!”
Gently, I lay the scythes neatly on a piece of dry tarp from the shed, and went to see. She was a third of the way down a row of wheat, bouncing up and down on a large rock. “Look at, Dwaddy! I stand here and I see you work. I see all it from here.” Zoie nodded seriously, as only a child can.
“Yes, dear, you could. But it is dangerous to be in the middle of a field at threshing time, especially when you are so little. You might be injured if someone was working nearby and didn’t see you.”
“Oh,” Zoie sniffed at my rebuke, and sat down clutching her knees. “But I want to watch.” Her green eyes glistened with tears as she pleaded with me.
“Well, we have some time before the other workers arrive. Neo!” I turned and yelled for Neo who was resting near the laid out scythes. “Bring two scythes and come here!”
“Yes, sir, mister boss, sir!” was his brash reply. A few moments later he appeared, holding two scythes. “What’s up, Demetri?”
“Zoie wants to sit here and watch today,” I explained, “so we are going to clear the surrounding wheat. We don’t want any accidents.” Neo nodded. “I’ll take left, you take right.” I patted Zoie quickly on the head and moved off to thresh the area to the left of her rock.
Zoie came with me for threshing every year after that, and always Neo and I would clear the area around ‘her’ rock before the others arrived. Just in case.
The morning of Zoie’s fifth birthday, I left our home early to retrieve the doll I had asked the toymaker to hold for me.
Today Zoie would go to learn her work. She was fortunate, I was fortunate. The healer who had long taken pity on us had seen a talent in Zoie, and would train her as an assistant. I was glad Zoie would have a skill, and not simply woman’s work. It was a small buffer against the harshness of the world. And so, for this special day, I had requested a special doll.
It was perfect. I had asked the toymaker to build the doll in Zoie’s likeness. Her dark brown hair was braided in two tight braids. Her small pink mouth smiled at the world. Her simple tunic was tied with a bright blue ribbon, Zoie’s favourite colour. And its sparkling green eyes were the very essence of Zoie’s joyous soul. Her own eyes, unlike either mine or her mother’s; all her own.
The sunrise shone golden as I walked back to our home, cradling Zoie’s doll as I had once cradled her. I saw her sitting on Neo’s lap laughing at a jest he had made. A braided crown of dark hair above her flushed and smiling face. She bounced on Neo’s lap, as full of joy as ever. Her green eyes sparkled, and I saw the same joyful sparkle echoed in Neo’s green eyes.
A puff of dust rose from the ground at my feet where Zoie’s doll had fallen. Numbness flooded me with understanding as I stared at my betrayer and his progeny.
I marched towards the field, unmindful of the squawks left in my wake. Fury followed numbness. I must get to the field, to act, before my mind was wholly overcome.
I tore the cover from the shed and wrenched a scythe from its innards. The others clattered to ground nearby, and I kicked them out of my way.
I swung the scythe with both arms and cut down the wheat like traitors. Over and over my scythe swung, relentless in its efficiency, my shoulders becoming as numb as I once again felt. I barely noticed the presence of the other workers as they arrived. I didn’t notice passing Zoie’s rock, nor the soft thump that landed behind me as I did.
Not until night fell and the air around me cooled, did I begin to cool. I slowed and finished the row of wheat, taking my scythe to return it to the shed. As I placed it inside, I noticed rust along its edge. One of the slaves had been failing to close the shed tightly, it seemed.
I straightened and saw Neo running towards me, his face contorted in fear. Did he know I knew? Should I kill him here and now? There was no one else around and the rusty scythe blade would assuredly camouflage his blood. Then Zoie would be my daughter again and he could never change that. I would wait to see what he said. Then I would know if it was necessary.
“Demetri?” Neo panted, “have you seen Zoie? I’ve just come from the healer’s and she’s not been there all day. I know she followed you to the field this morning, and….” He shrugged elegantly.
I blinked, confused, trying to recall this morning through the haze of discovery. “I haven’t seen my daughter all day,” I rebutted. “Are you sure she followed me?”
He nodded so violently I thought his head might fall off. I nearly laughed at the image. “Well,” I turned to survey the field and noticed Zoie’s rock sitting alone in its midst, “perhaps she’s on the rock. I’ll look.” I strode off with him.
As I approached the rock I saw a shadow on the ground that was not wheat. At the foot of the rock were two shapes; one round, the second oblong with odd appendages. The nearer I got, the faster my mind raced and the slower my heart became. Steps away I closed my eyes, willing it to be something else.
I knelt at the foot of Zoie’s rock and lifted her severed head into my lap. I stroked the back of her soft skull, the whisps of brown hair caressing my fingers. I lifted her body from where it lay, and placed it in my lap next to the head. I closed my eyes and cradled her close. She felt just the same.
But the warmth was gone. The only warmth I could feel were the tears running down my face. I raised my head the skies and howled.
I was numb as I lifted Zoie in my arms and carried her from the field. I was numb as I heard Neo’s gasp. I was numb as I turned to glare at him, promising him retribution for the tragedy his actions had caused. I was numb as I wandered.
I awoke from numbness to find myself at the foot of Letha’s grave. All I had carried with me was Zoie. I had no tools for the job ahead, and I was content. My hands, the hands that had held her, had comforted her, had fed her, had played with her, had killed her; my hands would dig her grave.
I lay Zoie’s body on the grass where I knew Letha’s chest would be. If I turned her just so I could pretend she was snuggled against her mother’s grave as she had been before. My face was still wet, but I paid it no mind as I began to dig.
The grasses were dense over the grave due to the richness of the soil, I presumed. The earth tore at my fingers as I tried to rip it up but to no avail. I won; I would always win whatever the cost. When I wiped my brow the blood from my fingertips, the soil, and my tears blended together and were returned to the earth, to the grave that would soon bear not only my wife, unfaithful though she had been, but my daughter, the child of my heart. Soon blood, sweat, tears and earth coated my arms and formed a heap beside Zoie’s still form.
The hole was clear in the moonlight. It lay just beside Zoie, above Letha’s chest. I lifted Zoie gently, attempting to pretend she was asleep, but the coldness of her skin and the wobbling of her head broke apart my fantasy. At last Zoie was snug near Letha. Snuggled against her mother in death, as she had never been in life.
I collapsed back on my heels. I wanted to take a few moments to grieve for the two women I had lost, but my job was not yet complete. I still had to fill the hole.
Fingers bleeding, arms already caked with dirt, I began to lift back into the hole what I had just dug out. It seemed fitting that my blood mixed with the soil that covered Zoie. My blood might never have run in her veins, a thought that nearly brought the return of the morning’s madness, but my blood had protected her and cared for her. Mine was all she’d ever known and been.
They had both been mine, and Neo had stolen them. First Letha, then, from that theft, Zoie. He would pay. I would not forget his betrayal. I would not blame Zoie for the fault of her mother, and Letha was weak of spirit like many women, easily swayed by a glib smiling fool like Neo. Besides, she was already dead.
I lay the last of the soil atop Zoie’s body and sat back on my heels, free at last mourn until I was empty. I mourned the loss of Zoie’s presence, her joy, her future, my happiness in watching her grow; I mourned the loss of my naivety, the thought that Letha had been mine alone, that loyalty and family were as important to others as they were to me; I mourned for myself, knowing that I would never be whole again, never truly be Demetrius, husband, father, friend. I was only a man, alone.
Such was my grief that I believed the darkness moving in around me to be wholly my own creation. As though my grief had summoned the Shades to drag me down to Hades’ depths. Then the shadows drew close around me, pinning my arms, and squeezing my chest. I drew a shallow breath, restricted by the shadows wrapped round my torso.
And then I welcome them. I was no longer Demetri, everything of value was gone and soon I would be gone, too. Something pierced my neck, and pain radiated outwards yet I remained calm. I was aware of my blood leaving through that piercing, my breath leaving my lungs; all that remained of Demetri, leaving. It was good.
Drained of all life, and all that had made life worthwhile, I fell forwards into the shadow’s waiting arms. My face was engulfed in solid shadows, and a drip of something coppery crossed my tongue. My swallow was a mere reflex; I did not want sustenance, I wanted death, but my body was betraying me.
More of the coppery liquid passed my lips, a drop, a mouthful, more. With each swallow I could feel death growing weaker. I tried to turn my head away, I tried to close my mouth, but my body refused to let go. Strength began returning to my limbs, but I still could not catch my breath. I pushed against the shadows, and they retreated.
I sucked deeply of the night air, yet could not feel it filling my lungs. I blew out, but it required such effort that I abandoned the attempt, simply standing and watching the shadows slowly recede as my insides called for more of that coppery liquid.
Come, the shadows spoke in my mind, come to your new life, son of shadow. Leaving Demetri with his wife and daughter, I followed.
My eyes followed the padrones as they walked around the outside of our cage. I concealed my disgust, unlike them. A child, no more than six; a man he should have been in his grave; these were the best of the slaves. Except for me. I may have been past my prime, but I was stronger, smarter, more powerful, and cleaner than anyone else in this cage.
But apparently the padrones were unappreciative. Each one came, walked around the cage looking disgusted, and bought a dirty, weak slave. When I saw the maggiordomo, I was glad for their stupidity.
I looked at my feet, following him with the corners of my eyes, careful to appear cowed. I heard him grunt when he saw me. A grunt of appreciation, certainly. Looking at my feet, I could barely see him when he finished his walk, but I did see his chin jerk in my direction. A moment later a handler grabbed my arm. “Come on, you, the signore wants you.” I pulled back slightly; best not to appear overeager. It amused me, though, to be dragged by this one. I could have snapped him if I’d wanted.
I looked up at the maggiordomo from downcast eyes. He simply nodded, and turned to walk away. I followed, watchful.
The man was untiring. The sun had just begun to fall when we left the market behind, but when we reached the villa the last rays had lit the sea ahead afire. It made me smile, even as my throat ached.
The villa was magnificent. White walls, clean grounds, and tiled paths. Power radiated from every gleaming surface. I was going to like working for this signore.
The silent maggiordomo lead me through the heavy front door, through passages I would have to remember, and into an anteroom. “The young Dio shall wake soon. He is your primary responsibility.” As soon as I stepped toward the door to the main room, the maggiordomo nodded and left.
I walked into the young Dio’s room, wanting to learn as much as I could before he awoke. There was little remarkable about it. The bed was like any other, the guardaroba a fine wooden one. I opened a drawer, but the tunics were unremarkable; fine linen, and dark in colour. I needed a clue about this man before he awoke.
The wooden covers on the windows were unusual. Not a ray of sunlight pierced them. I examined them and found they were nailed in. Not an accident. Perhaps the young Dio spent many days abed, and required the sunlight to be blocked out.
A grunt alerted me to his waking. Swiftly I moved to the foot of the bed and stood waiting. I waited until the last possible moment to cast my eyes downwards; I wanted to see this man before he saw me.
A dark head appeared, then two muscled arms, and last a pair of alert blue eyes. Hastily, I cast my eyes downwards. He snickered. I would be faster next time. I must know more of him than he did of me.
“So, who are you, sent to serve me?” His voice was calm, and not tired.
“I am called Antonius, Dio,” I replied.
“Are you?” The blankets rustled, and I heard him rise. “I am called Decentius, but that is not who I am.” I peered carefully at him. He was smiling; he was mocking me.
“I am your slave, Dio. If you wish me to be called something else, that is your choice.”
“Oh, no, Antonius. You will do just as you are.” He had moved across to the guardaroba while we were talking, and was now taking a fresh tunic from it.
“Please, Dio, it would be my privilege to bring your attire to you.” I noticed a flinch as I said it, and did not move. Had I offended him?
“Then you will have to anticipate better in the future.” His jaw had tightened. He was upset with himself. So, he had forgotten to let me get his tunic for him. He was not really a Dio. But how had he come to such status? And could I come to it, too?
As he pulled his tunic over his head, I spotted his sandals. They were worn and poorly mended. As I lifted the sandals across to him, a grain of wheat fell out. The best way to soften someone new to power was luxury. “Would you like me to bring you some food, Dio?” His blue eyes watched me closely as I tied on the sandals.
“No, I will be going out.” He stood. “I do not expect to need your assistance until tomorrow before dawn. Clean my tunics and sheets, then see the maggiordomo for further instructions.” He strode past me and out the door, not checking my response.
Not used to luxury, not a true dio, but certainly used to command. I stripped the bed, and tossed the used tunics into the pile, then headed to find the laundry area. The maggiordomo hadn’t told me anything about my master, but perhaps he would talk about his.
Although I wasn’t familiar with the layout of this villa yet, I’d been in enough to know where laundry was usually kept. I simply walked in the general direction, and followed my nose. The smell of lye and water became clear eventually.
The maggiordomo wasn’t here. Instead there were three young women, two of whom were assisting the third who looked quite pale. She may have been sick, but they were all giggling.
“Cloelie, did the new Dio visit you? You must sit, tell us all!” The two fussed over the pale third like children over a sweet. But I listened as I drew near the washbasin.
“Yes,” she tittered into her hand, “just as I was on my way here. He came across me in the hall and just…swooped.” Her hand fluttered in a listless way towards her neck. “You know how it is. So sudden and so…deep.” The three of them shared a look of understanding and memory. I dumped my pile softly on the floor.
“But… was it like the old Signore? Or was there more …passion?” The one asking blushed, and they all giggled again. I dropped a tunic into the basin, and began to slosh it about. Quietly.
“Oh, it was not the same, certainly not.” Now Cloelie blushed. “His eyes, those piercing eyes of his. I swear he read my soul as he took my blood.” They all swooned. I paused in my washing.
Blood? Soul? None of them were frightened by this talk. It seemed like common gossiping. “But nothing like the old Signore, for Aphrodite! This new one reeks of romance, yes?” They all nodded and giggled again. I resumed my washing. Cloelie was regaining her colour.
“Oh!” She suddenly pointed at me as some water sloshed over the basin. “You’re new. I saw the maggiordomo bringing you in.” The girls all looked at me, then at each other, and back to me again. They swayed toward me, enmasse. “Are you for the young Dio, then?” Cloelie asked.
I turned towards them. “Yes, I am.” I bit my lip apurpose. “Can you tell me anything? The maggiordomo was not specific.” I looked wistfully towards the group of girls.
Cloelie smiled at the other two, and put her arm in mine. “Oh, I would if I could, for your master has us all intrigued. But the maggiordomo forbids informing newcomers of the villa’s secrets.” They giggled, yet again. I could see red marks on her neck where she had been gesturing before. “Don’t worry,” she said, and kissed me on the cheek, “you’ll find out quickly enough. They don’t always want girls!” And at this the three guffawed, she released my arm, and they swaggered out of the room.
I returned to my washing, annoyed.
I piled wet tunics and bedding into a basket, and walked outside to find the drying line. Five steps outside the door, I stopped and stared. The villa was built mere feet from a cliff that echoed down to the lapping water below. The drying line was certainly not here, unless they enjoyed scampering down cliffs after stray washing.
I advanced along the wall’s edge, holding the basket securely and eyeing the moonlit ocean. The villa wall curved inwards, and I saw the drying line stretched across a courtyard. I placed the basket on the ground and added its contents to those already drying. Then I returned it, and myself, inside, a vigilant eye on the cliff edge.
Once inside, I left the basket, grabbed new bedding from the pile in the laundry room, and retraced my steps to Decentius’s room. I swung open the door, prepared to wait until he returned, and found Cloelie searching the guardaroba. In her infatuation she had forgotten to watch her back. I watched as she drew out one of the remaining tunics, held it up and pretended to kiss its wearer. I dropped the sheets at the foot of the bed, then moved in.
She hadn’t bothered to light a candle for fear of being seen, so when I pressed my hands against her mouth and throat her eyes she nearly screamed. She might have, if I hadn’t cut off her air supply. “Shh, Cloelie, you don’t want them to know what you’re up to, now do you?” I hissed in her ear. I let the pressure off her windpipe but left my hand, just in case. She shook her head in denial. “So what will you do to keep me from telling?” Her hand fluttered near the hem of my tunic as she tried to lift it. Then she reached for my genitals.
I struck her hand away. “Not likely,” I snorted, and threw her backwards against the guardaroba. I took one step towards her, placed a hand on her cheek, and stared into her wide eyes. “You will owe me and I will call the favor as I see fit. Now leave my master’s room.” Cloelie edged around me then ran for the door nearly knocking herself out in the process.
One inconvenience dealt with, I tried to determine how to occupy myself until Decentius returned. I decided to take a nap. I had to remake the bed anyways, so I might as well enjoy it. I tucked the sheets in from the bottom up, then pulled the comforter over myself. The bed was softer than any I’d had the privilege of sleeping on. How many feathers it had taken to fill the mattress I couldn’t even guess. I got comfortable.
I’d nearly fallen asleep when I heard steps in the hall. I pulled myself out of the bed and started straightening the cover just as the maggiordomo pushed through the door. “What are you doing? That is the maid’s job. Certainly the young Dio left more important tasks for you to fulfill,” he puffed.
I bowed smoothly in his direction. “No, maggiordomo, Dio Decentius requested I do all his personal care tasks from now on. He felt this would be most appropriate as I am his personal slave.” I looked at the maggiordomo to see his reaction. He sighed.
“All right, then, if that is what the young Dio wishes, so will it be. The care of these rooms, and his belongings shall be yours alone. Be warned,” the maggiordomo turned an admonishing finger on me, “this means you will be responsible for fetching his supper.” I scoffed, why should that be a concern. The man smiled indulgently, “You will learn soon enough. Now, if you have no current duties, I will show you to the servant quarters.”
And show me the servant quarters he did, along with everything else. Had he bothered to give me this tour when I arrived, I needn’t have wasted time searching for the laundry. The servants’s passages, the kitchen, the dining room; which earned a snigger from him, the sitting room, the study, the library, and finally the servants’s kitchen and the servants’s bunks, which I would have to share with all the male servants and slaves, except for him. That would change.
He took me to an empty bunk, and I made my mark on the headboard. “There,” I said, “anything else?”
“No,” the maggiordomo replied, “but you had best finish whatever tasks you were set. The sun will be rising soon.” And with that he left.
Grumbling, I returned to the outdoor courtyard to fetch the laundry. I left the sheets in the pile, and took the tunics back to Decentius’s room. This time there was no one inside when I opened the door. I opened the guardaroba and hung the tunics. I turned to go back to the bed and saw Dio Decentius sitting on its foot. I bowed immediately and stayed where I was.
He sat with his hands in his lap regarding me, his expression closed. “Do you know the village of Noto, Antonius?” I nodded. “Good. I wish you to go there this afternoon. In the largest of the grain fields you will find a man named Neo. Follow him, see where he takes his rest, and return.” I nodded again. He waved a hand in dismal.
As I laid my hand on the door, Dio Decentius called, “Before you go to sleep, send in that delightful Cloelie. I could use some refreshment.” I scowled and thrust opened the door, Decentius’s chuckle following me out.
I sent Cloelie to him then crawled into my bed to sleep. I didn’t have to see Decentius again until nightfall, and the village was only an hour’s walk.
Before I could fall asleep, I heard that incessant giggling out in the corridor. Cloelie had returned. I stood at the door, listening. Some of the other slaves gave me looks, but they returned to their beds at my glares. I opened the door a crack so I could see what she was giggling about this time.
There was Cloelie and her two friends standing outside the women’s quarters. Obviously the other women slaves found the giggling as annoying as I did so they had stayed in the hall. As when I’d first come across them, Cloelie was pale and sickly looking, and her friends were fawning over her.
“Yes,” Cloelie was saying regally, “he requested me specifically. Already. I heard the old Signore didn’t do that for years.” I could see the corner of her smirk and the looks of awe on her friends’ faces.
“Do you think he’d…raise you?” one of the friends asked.
Cloelie waved a hand. “Oh, you never know. Someone had better, soon, that’s all I know.” She huffed, then took one of her friend’s arms and they all headed into the women’s quarters.
So it seemed my master had the power to raise a slave. I wondered if that is what had been done to him; he certainly wasn’t born to power. I returned to my bed to go to sleep. Perhaps this ‘Neo’ would have some answers.
I awoke when the sun was nearing its height. There were at least a dozen other slaves and servants eating breakfast. Apparently this schedule was not unusual here. I spooned my porridge from the bowl and sat alone to eat. As I looked around the room I noticed that most of the slaves and servants were near my age. The women were a little younger. There were no children, and only one older man.
After taking the remains of my breakfast to be cleaned, I headed out for Noto. The walk was long and hot, and I had nothing to drink. My sandals and feet were covered with dust by the time I saw the village. Approaching it I saw several fields of grain. There were no clear borders, so how was I ever to determine which was the largest field? Not a problem.
I walked directly to the nearest field. It was full of slaves threshing. I knew at once who was the padrone. Head slightly bowed, I walked up to him. I shuffled my feet and looked down, around, and anywhere but at him. “What do you want?” he asked soon enough.
“They sent me to find Neo,” I peered up at him. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and pointed. I nodded and walked onwards.
Each field I came to I performed the same routine, and was pointed onwards, until the fourth when the padrone simply called out, “NEO!” A scruffy brown haired man turned, and the padrone pointed right at him. I nodded my thanks to the padrone and walked over to Neo.
Neo had wrinkles in the corners of his eyes and dark circles under them. He may have been fit once but now he was wan and looked hunted.
“What?” he asked when I stood in front of him.
I looked him in the eyes and he flinched. “A friend sent me to find you.”
He grunted. “I have no friends. Only demons.” I believed him.
Unfazed, I replied, “Nonetheless, I have been sent.”
“Fine,” he shrugged, “I’m working. Come back later.” He turned back to his threshing.
“Perhaps if I assisted you?” I said. I looked around. There was a pile of scythes at the padrone’s feet. Neo shrugged. I went over to the pile and picked up a scythe.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the padrone glared. “You don’t work here.”
“Sir, if I may? I shall assist Neo so that you do not lose any productivity due to my conversation with him.” The padrone grunted and shook his head.
“Fine, just don’t kill yourself.” He grinned at this remark, and pointed me towards a gap to Neo’s left. I took my place in line and began to swing the scythe. The grain fell before me.
The padrone kept me there until day’s end, which meant the sun was starting down. I had to get Neo somewhere and keep him there, then walk all the way back to the villa and get Decentius. I was not amused.
I swung my scythe over my shoulder and fell in step beside Neo. “I’m thirsty,” I said as we dropped our scythes into the pile.
“Fine,” he replied, “let’s get a drink.” Neo strode out of the field along a well-beaten path into the village of Noto. Enroute we passed an empty home. Neo flinched and doubled his pace as we drew near. He passed through the collection of houses and huts that was Noto with ease, and led me directly to a taverna. He pushed through the door and did not stop until he reached a table at the far back corner. “Good enough for you?” he asked, plopping into a chair.
I nodded and sat across from him. The chairs and table were worn and stained and smelled of alcohol. A man came over and plunked a drink in front of us both. Neo lifted his and drained it immediately. “Another,” he said handing the empty mug to the barman, who just nodded. My task had just become easier. I took a slow sip. Neo turned to look at me. “So, why are you looking for me?”
Not as dumb as he appeared. “As I said, a friend sent me.”
“Yes,” he grunted, “and as I said, I have no friends. Not anymore.” The barman returned and plunked two drinks in front of Neo. Neo picked up a mug from the table and stared into it. I waited. The more maudlin he was, the faster he’d get drunk and I could fetch Decentius. “I suppose you know why.” I shook my head, not even needing to lie.
“Well, I suppose it started about ten years ago,” Neo said, swirling his drink then downing half the mug. “My best friend, Demetrius, and I met this girl, woman really, Letha. Eros, she was beautiful. And kind. And sweet. And everything a man could want.” He paused to stare into his mug again, obviously seeing this ‘Letha’ in its depths. “And he won.”
Neo finished his drink, slammed it onto the table and put his face in his hands. “She told me I was too frivolous. And Demetri never was. So he won.” He lifted his head to look at me; his eyes pits edged with smile lines. I looked back at him then took a drink. Staring into his drink, he continued. “They got married and were deliriously happy. I was happy for them, at first, happy my friend had found someone. Then they started trying to have a family. And it didn’t take. And it didn’t take. They prayed at all the temples, did all the rituals, and it didn’t take. Years they spent, and money they couldn’t afford. Then finally she came to me.” He drained the second mug, thudded it on the table, and stared at me defiantly. “I did it for her. For him. For both of them, so they’d be happy. Except she died.” He stared at his empty mug until the barman noticed and came to replace the two empty ones with full ones. Then Neo downed half of one.
“She died, but the baby lived. Zoie. My daughter. Demetri’s daughter. All I got to be was ‘Uncle Neo’. But he had a piece of Letha and he went on. We went on together. And I thought it was going to be all right. Then he figured it out.” Another half a mug down. “That must have been it. He went berserk that morning, that whole day really. And the way he looked at me as he carried off Zoie’s body. As though I were a dead man.” He snorted. “I suppose the only reason I’m not is that he killed himself first. I guess. I found where he had buried Zoie, right with her mother. I saw the blood on the ground. Something must have taken the body.” He closed his eyes, and his voice dropped. “Or eaten it. Anyways,” he said returning to his story, “that’s it. I betrayed my friend, lost the woman I loved, my daughter, and him. I have no friends, only demons in my dreams. Unless I drown them.” He drank the second mug, looked at me as though he was going to ask something, and fell forward across the table.
I poked Neo in the side, once gently and then again with more force. He didn’t get up, he didn’t move or say anything. I finished my drink; in the time he’d had six I hadn’t even finished one, then walked over to find the barman. He saw me coming.
“You a friend of old Neo’s, then?” he asked, cleaning a mug one handed with a worn rag.
“Not exactly,” I replied, “but I work for one. I need to fetch him here but it will take awhile. Quite awhile.”
The barman nodded and put the mug on the wooden bartop. “Well, Neo’ll be out for a bit, then up to eat and drink some more. He don’t usually go home till the moon’s high.” I could see out the doorway and the sun hadn’t finished setting.
“Good,” I said. “I will return with my master before the moon is high.” I leaned forward. “Be certain Neo does not leave. My master does not like to be disappointed.” The barman snorted, unconcerned. “I will let him know who is responsible. You may benefit…or not.” I held his eyes to be certain he understood. He nodded. I turned and left for my trek back to the villa.
I trudged for an hour, and by the time I reached the villa the sun had completely set. Assuming Decentius would wake at the same time as the previous night, I hurried into the villa and made my way quickly to his rooms. I opened the door quietly and saw his head beginning to rise as I shut it.
I kept my eyes down as Decentius rose, but peered at him. He did not yawn or stretch on rising, but swung out of bed in one movement. I moved to the guardaroba to obtain a fresh tunic and held it out toward the bed. He took the tunic from me but did not put it on. I looked carefully at him to see what was wanted.
“Better,” he said. “You are useless to me, Antonius, if you will never look up. You will not see the important things on the floor.” With that he flipped his tunic over his head. “Now,” he continued, staring at me, “what have you discovered about Neo?”
I kept my eyes on his face, though I lowered them slightly to look at his chin, not his eyes. “Neo is awaiting us in a taverna in Noto. He is drunk and passed out. The barman assured me he does not leave the taverna before the moon is at its height.” I decided to keep ‘Demetri’ for myself.
“Anything else?” Decentius asked. I shook my head. He grunted and shook his head as well. “Then I suppose we had best go.” I moved swiftly to the foot of Decentius’ bed to obtain his sandals. As I handed them over, he smiled slightly. “Efficient.” I nodded. “Come.” He held out a hand to me. I stared at it, and then at Decentius. His smile had grown. “This will be much faster,” he said and grabbed my forearm.
Then he turned to shadow and surrounded me. We were as tall as he was, then we shrank and stretched, moving as shadow under the door and out through the hallway. No one noticed as our shadow moved past. I got a quick glance up several women’s dresses before we passed outside the villa and sped towards Noto. I wondered if Decentius had demonstrated this power to any of the other slaves. I would have to learn it.
I saw the taverna approaching and tried to speak but could only breathe shadow. He knew somehow and spit me out. Though it was fully dark now, I tracked that shadow as I made my way inside to Neo. It stayed at my side.
Neo was at the same table. He was awake now, and slowly sipping at his mug while staring at nothing. I returned to the seat I had vacated not two hours ago. “Back so soon?” Neo said without even glancing at me. “So where’s this supposed ‘friend’ of mine?” Neo put down his mug and looked at me. The shadow was right beside Neo’s chair, yet I couldn’t explain that to him.
Then the shadow grew and shaped itself into an upright oblong just the size of Decentius. It disappeared, leaving him standing a step from Neo. Neo bolted backward, his chair scraping ruts in the dirt floor, his mug spilling. “Demetri!” he blurted. Demetri? I wondered.
Decentius turned and met my eyes. “Stay,” he said. “Neo,” he turned, smiling, and laid a hand on Neo’s arm, “come we need to talk, in private.” White as bone Neo rose and followed Decentius out of the taverna.
I waited a twenty count after the door had closed behind them then went to follow. I turned towards the door, but when I made to rise from my chair I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t lift me. I wanted to go after Decentius, Demetri, whatever his name really was. I needed to know this thing; it might give me blackmail I could use to my advantage. But it seemed my legs would rather obey Decentius’ command to ‘Stay’ than my own desires. I lifted Neo’s overturned mug. A mouthful of wine remained, and I swallowed it at once. I struggled to stand again. “Barman!” I yelled, “Come here!”
The barman came swiftly, dodging tables and chairs, his face anxious. “What is it, then?”
“Help me up,” I said. He eyed me suspiciously and sniffed my breath.
“Just help me up, man, and never mind why,” I growled. He shrugged and offered me his hand. “Not like that, you idiot! Pull me up! Take me to the door.” The barman put his arms under mine and lifted me from my chair. I tried to lift my feet, but they still would not move. Shaking his head, the barman dragged me towards the door.
One step, two, three, then four. On the fourth step I pushed with my own legs. On the fifth, I was walking. I shook off the barman and continued out the door. How much of a headstart had Decentius gotten? Would I be able to find him in time to learn who ‘Demetri’ was?
The moon was high overhead and shadows fell from the buildings around me. I marched right into an alley between the backs of stores. No. I stopped and turned around. That deserted house Neo had gone past on his way from the field. The one that made him flinch. I was betting it had something to do with ‘Demetri’.
I ran towards that house, slowing only when I saw its moonlit outline. I strode carefully towards it, and tried to stay in the shadows.
Neo was on his knees before Decentius. I could hear the sound of his sobs through the quiet air. Decentius was standing over him, his back to me. He seemed to be listening.
“I’m sorry, Demetri,” Neo sighed, “I don’t know what else to say.” His face shone with wetness as he looked up at Decentius, but he wasn’t begging. “I know I’m dead. Just…say you’ll forgive me. Someday.” Decentius bent over him, whispering something in his ear that made Neo close his eyes. And then Neo gasped. And then he screamed.
Decentius continued whispering. I smiled at the screams, wondering what their cause was. What was Decentius saying that would cause such terror? He was taking his time. I supposed he was describing in great detail how he would enact justice on Neo.
Then he dropped Neo to the ground, and turned. His mouth was dark and bloody. He hadn’t been whispering at all. He had bitten Neo until he bled to death. My smile grew. He lofted Neo over his shoulder and strode away. I ran to keep up.
My legs were beginning to tire when Decentius finally dropped Neo on some dirt that looked as though it had been dug up not long ago. Then Decentius knelt and put his hands on Neo’s shoulders. “Now you are together in death. Addio mia ama. I shall not be coming to Hades to be with you.” I stepped back into what shadow there was as he rose.
It didn’t matter. He turned directly to me. “And you,” he was at my side in one stride, “you have seen far too much. But you are efficient.” His grin mirrored mine when Neo had screamed. “I will have to bind you.” His right hand brushed across his left forearm, then instantly grabbed my neck. I pushed against his grip. This time my legs worked, but still I could not get free and all Decentius did was grin. I swung my arms at his. He didn’t even flinch. He just held my head and placed his left forearm against my mouth. It was bloody and oozing. He pressed my face harder, my nose covered by his arm. I opened my mouth to breathe and tasted blood. But this blood tasted different. It was less salty than normal blood, and much richer. My nose was now free, but I was curious. I let the blood flow into my mouth. It was rich like good wine, and hearty like stew. I could feel power in each mouthful I gulped. Then he pulled his arm away.
“Enough. You are bound. You will learn the rest in time. Now, we will return to the villa.” Decentius stepped forward into the shadow and disappeared, leaving me to walk. I felt power surge through me as took my first step. I began to run, faster than I had before. My legs were no longer tired. I was full of energy and power. Binding be damned, I wanted more.
The moment I heared the door shut, and Antonius’ ragged breath, I knew he had found Neo. Though Neo was rarely difficult to find.
It is amusing to watch Antonius learn his new place, and where exactly he is. I enjoyed the expression on his face as he watched me dissolve into shadow. It was so relaxing, the shadow. Antonius' heart pounded as I engulfed him, dragging him along to Noto as swiftly as a shadow moves.
His struggles to speak would have been amusing if he hadn’t been attempting to breathe bits of my shadow, so I released him. Then followed as he marched towards the taverna. It was old and worn, like everything in Noto, and squeezed in the square between a butcher shop and a fabric stall.
I could see Antonius trying to track my shadow with his eyes. He was better than most of the old Signore’s slaves. Better than any I’d encountered, save the maggiordomo who has years of practice.
I would have frozen when I saw Neo, but shadows do not freeze. My friend and betrayer was a walking dead man, not of the body, but the soul. His eyes, the gateways to his soul, were empty black pits. He was no more the man he had been than I was. I gathered my shadows together and emerged.
“Demetri!” Neo screamed, knocking back his chair and spilling his drink. He gazed up at me in terror.
I turned to Antonius, not wanting his intrusion into this personal matter. “Stay,” I commanded, staring into his mind so that he was forced to obey. “Neo,” I turned with a small smile, “come, we need to talk in private.” I pulled him to his feet then turned to leave. I could hear his plodding footsteps following behind me.
I slipped outside the door and moved to the side, grabbing Neo as he stepped through. Neo didn’t scream, only grunted in submission. With a simple relaxation, I was shadow once more and Neo was along for the ride. He was subdued, and didn’t bother to struggle like Antonius. He really did not seem himself. I began to be suspicious.
We slid through the shadows to the old house. I had left it alone these past months, but it seemed a fitting place to reconnect with my old friend. A place where so much had happened, for both of us.
I released Neo, who crumpled to heap in the dirt outside my old home. I gathered my shadows and stood before him. “Why?” I said.
Neo knelt before me, the shadows in his eyes familiar. “I…I…” he spluttered, and pleaded with his hands, my new self defeating his attempts to speak. “Who are you? What… Demetri? Are you real? Or…have you come back for me from Hades?”
I stared into the pits of his eyes with ferocity. My hands quivered with restraint. “WHY?” I bellowed. Neo collapsed onto the ground; his breathing grated on my ears. I calmed myself, outwardly. “Neo, it is me. I want to know why. You know what happens then.” I wanted to lift him from the ground, to have him stand beside me like my old friend, but I knew if I touched him I would kill him.
Neo sighed and sat up in the dirt. “You deserve to know, but it’s not what you think. I didn’t want to hurt you, or her. I loved you both!” His eyes were wet as he looked up at me. I ached for him, but I needed to know. “She couldn’t have your child, Demetri, she didn’t know why. You know how you tried, and prayed, and…one day she asked me for help.” His hands reached out for me, to touch the hem of my tunic, my leg, anything. I stepped away. I needed to know. “And I gave it. I was weak. I loved her. I loved you. I told myself you’d never know. I told myself it was for you. I told myself….” His eyes were fixed on mine, pleading for understanding, while his hands twisted in agony. “And then Zoie came and you were so happy, I knew I could never tell you. But you figured it out. How…how did you figure it out?”
I answered his plea. “The eyes.” Neo inhaled sharply then nodded.
“They weren’t blue, they were green like mine. But why did you…what did you…what happened?” Neo peered into my face. Traces of tears lent light to his pale face.
I closed my eyes against the memories. “I did not react well to the revelation. It was an accident. I would never…hurt…a child.” The words tore my throat. I closed my eyes tighter but still the image of Zoie’s head lying at the foot of her rock would not leave. It never left me. “But I did. Thanks to you.” I had forgotten in my grief that the cause lay at my feet. “Is that all?”
Neo looked up at me. “I’m sorry, Demetri,” Neo said, “I don’t know what else to say.” I could see the knowledge of what was next written on his face. He had accepted it. “I know I’m dead. Just…say you’ll forgive me. Someday.”
I leaned over Neo and whispered, “I forgive you.” Then I bit him. His screams sounded around me. I could taste him as I drank his blood, and wondered if Letha had tasted the same thing. Sunshine and honey, vibrance and passion, and sorrow. Would the sorrow have been there, then? Still, as I took the life from my old friend and betrayer, I wondered if it were really necessary.
His blood gone, his life gone, I lifted Neo over my shoulder and strode to the grave; the only grave that mattered. I could hear Antonius running behind me; I would deal with him after. As I lay Neo down I could feel the earth I had dug up. It was soft and fresh and full of life. I wished, again, that I had died here. I sat back on and looked at Neo resting. Here he was with Letha and Zoie. The family of blood together in death. I had no family in life, and did not look to find one in unlife. Immortality might stretch before me, but my heart would lie here.
I leaned forward and lay my hands on Neo’s shoulders. “Now you are together in death. Addio mia ama. I shall not be coming to Hades to be with you.” I stood, and turned to deal with Antonius.
He had attempted to hide in the shadows; foolish. Had he not being paying attention? Shadows were mine to command. He could never hide from me there. “And you,” I moved to Antonius, grinning, “you have seen far too much. But you are efficient. I will have to bind you.” I slashed my left forearm with the long nail of my right hand, and grabbed Antonius by the neck. He struggled pitifully against me, but I brought his lips to my arm. Still he fought, such anger, but it was inevitable; in his search for breath, he drank. One drink was all it took for the blood to bind a servanti, and I let him have several. “Enough. You are bound. You will learn the rest in time. Now, we will return to the villa.” I turned, and relaxed into shadow, knowing that he would follow. The binding would force him too, though I suspected he was arrogant enough to think he could use it against me.
My shadow skimmed through the moonlight. I returned to my rooms with time to purge the night’s events before Antonius arrived.
The next evening when I rose, Antonius was at his accustomed place at the foot of my bed. His eyes were downcast but he quivered with unexpressed power.
I rose from the bed, Neo’s blood surging through my veins. Antonius fetched a tunic from the guardaroba, the usual dark one with an even darker tie. I put it on while he brought me my sandals. I could see the light of unasked questions in his eyes.
Antonius had returned from Noto a mere quarter candlemark after myself. I was uncertain if that were usual for a servanti, perhaps I would question the old maggiordomo. It seemed a promising start, nonetheless.
I fixed Antonius with a stare until he met my eyes. “What is it you wish to ask me?” His eyes flickered as though he were nervous, but I was doubtful. Anxious, perhaps.
“Dio,” he began, clasping and unclasping his hands in front of him, “You spoke as though there was more to this…gift. What is it?” His eyes bulged as he stared into my face. What had he almost said? I decided to use his intensity against him. Let us see how strong he was where it counted most. Since his focus was on me, I had to do little; I simply stared into his mind and found the topmost thought. Power. I grinned; it was hardly surprising.
“You wish to increase your newly gained power, servanti?” Antonius furrowed his brow at the unfamiliar word, but nodded eagerly. “And what do you want?”
“More!” Antonius cried. “I felt the strength in me last night. I ran without tiring. I ran faster than anyone. I was strong. I want more!” He reached for my arm in eagerness. I drew from my surging blood and knocked aside his arm with such ferocity that he was flung across the room and against the door. I could see a small dent in the wood where his head had hit, but Antonius only rebounded, wild eyed.
“Stop,” I commanded him. He froze where he stood, a step from the door. “Never will you touch me again. I know what you want.” I moved towards him. “And you will have it. But if you truly wish your power to grow, you must control your passions.”
Antonius’ chest rose and fell with his efforts at self-control. His hands clenched and unclenched, his jaw worked. He stared, hard, at the floor, as if it had done him a great wrong. Finally, he looked up at me, his face smooth. “Good,” I said. “You may have your reward.” Once again I slashed my forearm the long fingernail. Antonius leaned towards me as I raised my arm to his lips. It was good my strength surpassed his own, or I would never have broken his hold; so eager was he to ingest what he believed to be power. I pried open his mouth and pushed him back, holding him until he calmed. His eyes gleamed, and he licked every bit of blood his tongue could reach from his face.
“Dio,” Antonius said, attempting humility, “What is next?”
I smiled. Apparently he could be taught. He had listened in the midst of his passion. “Next, Antonius, you focus. Feel the blood in your veins. Use it to draw strength, but only when you need it. It is not a toy, and you cannot be renewed each night.” I stared at him to be certain he understood; my blood was my own, and he received it at my discretion. Antonius bowed his head in respect. “Now, fetch me Cloelie. And take that laundry with you. It is stained.” I pointed to the tunic I had worn the previous night. Flecks of Neo’s blood stood out red on its dark surface, and I could smell Neo in them.
Antonius had grimaced at the mention of Cloelie’s name, but I ignored it. Servants fight, as well I knew. He would do his job; he was bound to it. And even if not, I could force him, though it was not worth the effort. “Yes, Dio,” was all Antonius replied before gathering the laundry and trudging from the room. I heard his steps change as he reached the hall in search of Cloelie; no longer trudging but stomping.
I waited until I could no longer hear Antonius’ steps, then relaxed into shadow. Yesterday had been a hard day, and training Antonius was not going to be as easy as I had hoped. He would do well in the physical manifestations of his abilities, but I did not believe he would comprehend their subtleties.
I was relaxed in my shadow, when the door opened and a woman I did not know entered. She was tall, with long black hair, and eyes highlighted by powder. Several bracelets clattered on both her arms, such that I was surprised I had not heard her in the hallway. Her sandals were laced up to knees with beads braided onto the lashes. Her tunic, which came just below her knees, was red. Of course. But why was there a prostitute in my room? Why was there one in the villa at all?
Just as I was to preparing to emerge from my shadows, there was a knock at the door. “Dio?” I heard Cloelie’s tentative voice from the hallway. “You called for me?” The woman froze, then melted into shadow herself and slid under the door. I would have blinked, but shadows have no eyelids, instead I gathered myself and emerged to answer Cloelie’s knock.
The door swung smoothly open to reveal Cloelie’s astonished face. She blinked, then turned to look down the hallway. “Dio,” she began, “did you see…something on the floor? A…shadow?” Her green eyes shone with moisture.
“Do not worry yourself,” I replied, taking her arm and leading her into my room. “The shadow shall not bother you tonight.” Cloelie followed unhesitantly. I had been fortunate the Signore allowed me to remain in the villa during this time of transition. Cloelie stopped at the foot of my bed, closed her eyes, and tilted her head for me to feed.
I wanted to slam the door behind me as I left to do Decentius’ bidding, but it would give him another excuse to reprimand me. Carrying the basket of laundry in front of me, I walked to the servants’ quarters. I hoped Cloelie would be there, I had no desire to search the villa for her. I dropped the basket outside of the men’s quarters, not wanting to be carrying it when I found her. I rapped hard on the women’s door, and an older woman stuck her out.
“What are you do…”
I interrupted her before her rant could take off. “Just tell me if Cloelie’s in there and I’ll leave you alone,” I said. The old woman snorted and turned back inside. “Hey!” I yelled after her. “Come back and answer me!” I moved to push open the door, but it swung inwards.
Cloelie stuck her head out. She looked smug. “Yes?” she said, “what would you like?” A smirk covered her face; she already knew the answer.
“He wants to see you. Now.” I spat the words through clenched teeth, the blood I had taken from Decentius pounding in my ears. He would do more than reprimand me if I deprived him of Cloelie’s presence, yet I knew she was a threat to my position. There had to be a way to get rid of her without the blame falling on me.
Cloelie flipped her hair over her shoulder as she strode past me. She glanced down at the laundry basket, then turned a back to favour me with another smirk. I was glad Decentius hadn’t asked me to bring her to him; I didn’t want to be near her if I could avoid it. I watched her sashay until she was out of site then picked up the basket and went to the laundry room.
The room was empty and dark this time. The window let in enough light that I could see where the oil lamp sat. I felt on the shelf beside it for the flint. When I touched the flint, I struck it immediately and lit the wick. My eyes blinked at the light, and my nose recoiled at the smell of olives. I left the lamp on the shelf, but tied my tunic around the flint. I didn’t want to be stuck without light again. Normal people, sane people, people who didn’t have blood for breakfast, did their work during the day when they could see. Only I, Antonius, slave to a shadow, was forced to blunder around in the darkness.
Fortunately I did not have to haul water in the darkness. Apparently the day slaves had already done it. Instead I took a jug and dumped jug after jug of water into the washbasin until there was enough. I dumped in Decentius’ clothes, took the soap, and began to rub them on the uneven washing surface. Sheer drudgery. I longed to feel the power surging through my veins as I had last night. I wanted to wipe the smirk of Cloelie’s face as I twisted her pretty limbs off one by one. I could picture her face, feel the crackle of her bones, and hear her hoarse screams.
Then a shadow fell across me. I turned, slowly, to see a woman more beautiful than any I’d known. Long black hair cascaded over her shoulder, her eyes were sunk in deep dark pools, and jewelry glittered on her arms and sandals. The only thing marring this vision was her red tunic, the tunic of a common whore.
“Hello,” the vision murmured as she glided toward me. “You look far too big and burly to be relegated to such a menial task.” The washing dripped onto the floor beneath me as I stood entranced by her violet eyes. Her hand rose slowly, tracing a line from my jaw to my scalp. I felt my skin tingle where her fingers brushed. She leaned near me, eyes fluttering, breathing deeply, her chest rising beneath my chin. Then she stopped, blinking, and stared at my mouth. “Who’s servant are you, Antonius?”
My mind was so full of her that I didn’t wonder how she knew my name. “Decentius,” I muttered, then remembered my manners, “Dio Decentius, Gentildonna.” She smiled, eyelids fluttering.
“Ah, that explains it. Do you, perhaps,” she lay her hand upon my chest, “know where he is just now? I’d be ever so grateful.”
I stared into her smile. “I left him in his rooms not long ago. He should still be there, Gentildonna.” Certainly he would be, that vile Cloelie was visiting him as we spoke.
She nodded. “And tell me, who is this ‘Cloelie?’” Her eyes were magnificent, the grey flecks floating on the violet pools. Had I mentioned Cloelie aloud? I must have.
I snarled. “A useless pretty girl.” The wet tunic twisted in my hands, a rush of water splashed over my feet. “She wants something from him, I’m sure of it. Something she doesn’t deserve, I’ll bet.” My blood began to pound again, and the image of Cloelie’s dismembered body flashed into my mind. I smiled.
“Hmm,” the gentildonna murmured, “perhaps I can help you solve this problem, Antonius. But be warned,” her fingers tapped softly on my chest, “I will call the repayment when I wish. What do you say?”
This vision was willing to help me dispense of Cloelie? “Yes!” I yelped. “Oh, yes please, Gentildonna. If you can get her out of the way, I shall gladly repay you.” I was breathing quickly. I grabbed the hand that lay on my chest and raised it to my lips, kissing it. Her hand tasted of honey and wine, richness and refinement. Again her smile shone over me and I basked in it.
“Good.” I leaned forward as she lifted her hand from my chest, not wanting to be parted with such casualness. She turned and floated toward the doorway. “It will be well, Antonius, you will only have to be patient awhile.” And she left, only the memory of her touch, her smile, and the taste of her hand remaining.
I returned the laundry to the washbasin, and pulled a tunic from the basket to dry my sodden feet.
I walked along the hallway to room Maggiordomo Theophilus told me belonged to this ‘Decentius’. The halls were white, everything not of wood, was white. I supposed it helped the mortal ones to see during the night. For me, it was simply annoying.
I stared at the door for a moment, wood, plain and unadorned. Had he chosen it, or had Signore Umbrae? I wondered what the Signore had told Decentius, he’d certainly told me little enough. Stepping forward, I opened the door slowly and peered inside.
The room was much like my own: a large bed, the guardaroba, the covered windows. Oh, but I missed the sun! And my reflection, too. I doubt the men felt that loss as keenly, yet how was woman to know if she looked proper when she could never see herself? Slaves were useless, they only told you what they thought you wanted to hear, uncaring if it were true or not.
There was certainly no one in the room. Just a plain room full of shadows, like nearly every room in this villa.
A knock on the door startled me, and I turned, bracelets clattering. “Dio?” I heard a girl’s voice from the hallway. “You called for me?” The tone was one I recognized, soft and expectant. I was interested to see this girl, but could hardly emerge from Decentius’ room without causing comment, not that I minded those in their proper place and time, but it was not yet time. Instead I relaxed, melting in with the shadows of room, and slipped under the doorway.
I hovered near the girl for a moment, wanting to know if I had competition. Her stola was plain, though not the bland tan of something undyed but a pleasant violet colour. She had no adornments, no powder, and her sandals were nearly falling apart. Obviously one of the villa’s slaves summoned to provide Decentius dinner. Rising slightly along the door, I noted her deep brown hair, young smooth skin, and sparkling green eyes. A pretty one for certain. Decentius had summoned this one specifically, which spoke of his tastes. I would talk to her later, and find out if she was really worth worrying about.
I floated down the hallway, out of sight of the pretty young thing, before I re-emerged from my shadow. The slaves were familiar with the ways of the shadows, but I was new here. The longer I remained a mystery, the more I would find out.
There was a sloshing sound and a small glow of light ahead. Deciding to investigate, to crept into the room to see a slave at washing. I stood a moment to watch, he didn’t look like the usual sort of slave one sent to do washing, far too many muscles. If he hadn’t been a slave, well, he might have been worth more attention. Now, he was just a fun distraction.
I moved into the room and stood so my shadow, the real one, not the empowered one, fell over him. I watched as his sloshing slowed, and his head jerked up in surprise. When he turned toward me, I wasn’t disappointed. He was every bit as animalistic as I’d thought. The scruffy brown hair, the sloping forehead, the solid build, and the expression of pure annoyance. “Hello,” I purred, moving toward him. “You look far too big and burly to be relegated to such a menial task.” His eyes widened and his face took on that slack-jawed expression men so often wore when they saw me. The more distracted he was, the easier it would be for me to penetrate his defenses. Another step closer, and I reached up to touch his face. I didn’t want to get too close, though, he was still holding the washing. My sandals could be ruined by a random drop of water. I wasn’t sure how far I’d get conversationally with this one, so I stared into his muddy eyes and listened to his mind. Antonius, he was called. “Who’s servant are you, Antonius?”
He didn’t even blink at my using his name, oblivious thing. It took just the slightest mental touch to prompt him to answer my questions. Really, the pretty boy had no strength of mind at all. “Decentius,” he spat out eagerly, “Dio Decentius, Gentildonna.” I smiled at that, ‘gentle lady’, was I?
Batting my eyes, I put my hand on his chest right over his heart. “Ah, that explains it. Do you, perhaps, know where he is just now? I’d be ever so grateful.” I could feel his pulse quicken beneath my touch. He stared at me, his eyes meeting mine. The silly boy, the eyes were so much more than the ‘window to the soul’.
“I left him in his rooms not long ago. He should still be there, Gentildonna.” Antonius quivered as he spoke my title, but an expression of extreme distaste twisted his face once he’d finished speaking. I peered in those windows he’d left so carelessly open, and a name floated up.
Inclining my head, I asked, “And tell me, who is this ‘Cloelie?’”
A pure animal snarl warped Antonius’ rugged face. “A useless pretty girl.” He was wringing the wet clothes he held like they were this girl’s neck. I didn’t need any immortal insight to know he hated her. “She wants something from him, I’m sure of it. Something she doesn’t deserve, I’ll bet.” I’d left myself open to his mind, and a vivid image of Antonius dismembering the girl I’d seen outside Decentius’ quarters burst from him. I started. Fortunately Antonius was too busy living out his bloody dream to notice, if the hungry smile on his face was any indication.
Two birds, one stone; I could find out more about this ‘Cloelie’ and have Antonius indebted to me. “Hmm,” I hummed, trying to sound unsure, “perhaps I can help you solve this problem, Antonius. But be warned,” I tapped my fingers on his chest, knowing it would cloud what little judgment he possessed, “I will call the repayment when I wish. What do you say?”
He burst out with no time for thought, “Yes! Oh, yes please, Gentildonna. If you can get her out of the way, I shall gladly repay you.” With faster reflexes than I expected, he grabbed my hand that lay on his chest and kissed it. I could feel his tongue flit between my fingers but he made no other opportunistic motion.
“Good.” I smiled, and withdrew my hand from above his heart. The moment it left his tunic, Antonious leaned toward me, swaying like a man in need of water. I chuckled in my mind. If his master was anything like him this would almost be too easy. “It will be well, Antonius, you will only have to be patient awhile,” I said over my shoulder from the doorway. Antonius looked nearly ready to faint. I turned before he could see my grin at his expense, and began to walk back to Decentius’ chamber.
I wondered if Antonius would follow me once he emerged from his trance. I was curious to see how he interacted with Decentius. It was somewhat disappointing when I didn’t hear the pat-pat of his feet following me, but then, it would be easier to get a sense of Decentius alone. I chuckled. If he was alone, perhaps Cloelie was working on him even now.
I paused outside the wooden door to Decentius’ room, and listened. I heard a soft sigh and a giggle, apparently Cloelie was still keeping him company. “And how do you feel, my dear?” said a measured tenor voice. “Any pain now?”
“No.” Cloelie’s voice was light and airy. The sort of voice designed to make a man think you had not a wit in your pretty little head. It seemed the animalistic Antonius was a better judge of character than I’d guessed. Or perhaps he simply knew when someone was getting in his way.
“Good,” Decentius murmured. “Now, it is time for you to go. Please, return to me tomorrow night, my dear.”
Cloelie tittered. “Yes, Dio. I am here to serve you.” She wasn’t half bad, the pretty young thing. I knew that tone; I could practically see the lowered head, the shy gaze up at him. What was she after?
“No,” Decentius responded, “you are here because I wish you to be.” Oh, he was caught.
Steps sounded on the other side of the door. I melted back into the shadows beside the door as it swung open and a very demure looking Cloelie stepped forth. She walked away down the hall with a slight sway, as though dizzy, and I saw Decentius step forward to watch her. His eyes were slit, and mouth tight but turned up into a grin. He looked hungry. Cloelie had done well.
I studied Decentius as he stared after her. He seemed made of shadows: dark hair, dark eyes whose colour I could not see, black tunic. He had none of the animalistic traits of his servant, Antonius. Despite a build that suggested he had not been raised from a noble, or even an equite, the coldness of his expression spoke of a man who thought more than he felt. A challenge.
Once Cloelie has disappeared, Decentius moved into his room shutting the door solidly behind him. I waited a ten-count then re-emerged from the shadows to knock on Decentius’ door. I wondered what his response would be, but I didn’t have to wonder long.
Although I had been listening for his approach, I did not hear a single step. Instead, the door was opened abruptly in front me and there was Decentius, glaring.
“So, you are back.” I was momentarily confused how he knew I had been there before, and it must have shown on my face, for Decentius wore a satisfied grin.
“I am here,” I temporized, “because Signore Umbrae wishes me to be. Just like you.” I smiled softly, and moved past him into the room, the hem of my tunic brushing against his. When I turned to face Decentius again, his expression had gone stoic. “Tell me, who was that charming child I passed in the hall?”
If it was possible, Decentius’ expression became even more closed. “She is no business of yours, woman, no matter who has brought you into this house.” He made to step toward me, but I moved first. With one step I was in front of him, my hand placed on the dent below his neck. He struck my hand away, and his eyes, which I saw were blue, widened with annoyance. “None of your whore’s tricks.”
I stood and simply continued to smile into his stoic face. “This will never do, Decentius. The Signore wishes us to work together. To bring his line to greatness. Surely he has told you as much.” I watched as Decentius’ expression melted into submission.
“He has,” was all Decentius replied.
I turned and walked slowly to Decentius bed, sitting on carved rail at its foot. “Then perhaps we should determine how to do that?” I looked up at him through my lashes, but he stayed standing where he was. The man had self-control, I would grant him that.
Decentius continued staring at me, piercing through my lashes and looking into my eyes. I blinked, slowly, letting him know my mind would not fall to his search. “So, what is your name, then?” he finally said.
“Claudia Antonia,” I replied, nodding my head towards him. “Surely it was mentioned to you?” Signore Umbrae had told me whatever I had asked about Decentius, beginning with his name. I had assumed Decentius knew as much of me as I did of him.
“No,” he crossed the room gracefully and leaned against the guardaroba, never taking his eyes off me as he did so. “I have no use for women, and less so for ones such as you.” My eyes widened slightly, though it was scarcely the first time I’d heard such a judgment.
“Really?” I feigned surprise. “Yet you seem to have great use for that young woman, Cloelie.” Biting my lip to prevent myself from smiling, I lounged on my side across Decentius’ bed. That way I could still see him without getting a crick in my neck. His lips pressed into a line so tight it was nearly invisible; I could almost hear his teeth grinding. What were the limits of his self-control?
“She is merely a slave sent to serve me. I would not expect you to understand.” Decentius’ chin rose as spoke, daring me to contradict him.
“No,” this time I did smile, “I suspect I should never truly understand the relationship between a man and his slave. And how is Antonius today?”
Though I was watching Decentius’ expression closely, it was unnecessary. He let out a snicker at the mention of Antonius and smiled appreciatively. “I’m sure he is fine. Antonius can take care of himself. I will tell him you enquired as to his fitness, I’m sure he will be gratified. Now, would you state your business so that we may discuss it before you depart?”
I chuckled at Decentius’ retort. I was beginning to like this man, despite his cold exterior; he was fun to play with. “I believe I have mentioned it. Bring our line, Signore Umbrae’s line, to greatnes.” I sat with my hands on my lap, and crossed my legs causing my decorated sandals to jingle. So much for appearing demure.
A snort from Decentius. “That for ‘Signore Umbrae’s greatness,” he said, slapping the air beside his head. “We cannot be great with only the two of us, and he has told me he will raise no more. ‘One of each I have, and that is all I need’ he said.” Decentius eyed me then began to pace in front of his guardaroba. “We need more of us. And we need to deal with Rome, or we shall be irrelevant no matter how many we are.”
I watched Decentius as he paced, mesmerized by his unconscious grace. The shadows followed his steps in a way I could not begin to repeat, yet he made no sign that it was deliberate. His bare feet slapped wooden floors, his face thoughtful, his hands clasped behind his back. There was a dark deliberation to him, and it was magnificent.
“Deal with Rome?” I asked, eyes following as he paced. “Whatever for?”
Decentius stopped, his head turning toward me. “Surely you jest? They have demolished three of our cities already. Katane lies a mere day’s march North of us. Do you think they will stop with three?”
“’Our cities’?” I chuckled. “Aren’t we presumptuous.”
Decentius did not seem amused. “No,” he replied, “I’m not. We are risen above the mortals, and we must care for them, protect them. Otherwise we are simply parasites.”
I blinked at his lecture. “We are not parasites; we are Immortals. That is more than enough to ensure a mere mortal’s loyalty.”
Decentius shook his head in denial. “It is not about loyalty; it is about responsibility. We are greater than them, so we must care for them, like a parent with a…child.” His jaw clenched and he spoke the word ‘child’ slowly. “Rome has already taken Italy, it will not stop there. You need only listen to the sailors in Messena to know what is coming.”
I shrugged. “And what do you suggest we do? Two of us cannot defeat the armies of Rome.” I stood, arms out, and spun in a circle. “I am not a fighter, Decentius.”
I saw his eyes watching me, considering. “No, but you may be something better. Tell me, how many men did you seduce before you caught the attention of Signore Umbrae?”
“Enough.” I said. It had never been so much seduction as patience, and blackmail. “What did you have in mind?” I stepped towards him and placed my hand on that same hollow below his neck. This time he did not push me away.
“Nothing yet,” Decentius replied. I saw his blue eyes turn stormy and a smile creep over his lips as he gazed into the shadows above my head. “First I must find some Romans.” His eyes shifted and met mine. “Can you wait?”
“Of course.” I smiled across the hand span that separated us, lifting my hand from his chest and drawing it upward across his soft grin, touching the corner of his stormy eye. “I’m very good at waiting,” I replied. Decentius’ expression did not change.
“Good,” he said, taking my hand away and putting his arm through mine, “then you will be able to amuse yourself while I see to the first step.” He escorted me to the door and nodded a farewell. I inclined my head in return, patting him on the arm before leaving.
I set off to find Cloelie. It shouldn’t be too hard; I’d just go to the slaves’ quarters first, and if she wasn’t there, I’d send someone for her. There are advantages to being the mistress, after all.
There were two sets of slaves’ quarters, those within the villa for the indoor slaves, and those attached to the barn for the outdoor slaves. I’d been to the outdoor ones once, and I wasn’t planning on going back. I know it’s difficult for slaves to have a bath in anything other than the sea, but they stank! And the old wood of the building had mold and rot, which certainly didn’t help. Not at all like the nice stone walls of the villa. I only hoped Signore Umbrae would update the floors soon, too. But since Cloelie had come to see Decentius, she was likely one of the indoor slaves and I wouldn’t have to worry about setting foot outside.
There were two doors to the slave’s quarters, one for the men’s side and one for the women’s. Sadly, no one had marked them, so I didn’t know which I wanted. I suppose the slaves knew well enough which room was theirs. I stood staring at the doors, not wanting to knock on the wrong one and look like an idiot. Then I saw Antonius.
He must have finished the washing and been returning for some sleep. I faded into the shadows, not really wanting to deal with him just now, but I watched which door he went through. Then, when he had disappeared inside, I re-emerged and knocked on the other door.
An older woman poked her head out, eyes widening at the sight of me. “Good evening, gentildonna, how may I help you?”
“Cloelie. I would speak with her,” I replied.
She nodded once and went back inside. In the moment before Cloelie appeared, I decided it was best to take this discussion elsewhere. Antonius was in the room next door and, unless I were a very bad judge of character, he was exactly the sort to listened at doors. Especially if he heard the voice of Cloelie, the one he hated.
The pretty young thing poked her head meekly out from the door. “Yes, gentildonna? How may I serve you?”
I smiled. “’You are here because I wish you to be’.” I saw her face blanch in recognition. “Come, we will discuss this in my quarters.” I turned and walked to my own quarters. Though they were the mirror image of Decentius’, they were on nearly the opposite side of the villa. An odd layout, now that I thought of it, but there was likely some reason that no one had bothered to tell me. The hall to my quarters changed from wood to stone part way, and I realized what it was. This area was new. Lucky me.
I opened the door to my own quarters and went through, leaving Cloelie to catch the closing door or be left outside. She darted her way inside, none of the meek girl I had seen leave Decentius’ quarters in her bearing.
“All right, gentildonna,” her voiced dripped sarcasm, “what is it you what?” Cloelie’s green eyes flashed, and her hands went straight to her hips. Oh, but she had nerve.
I grinned and sat on the edge of my bed. “I want to talk to you. If you will are willing to tell me what it is you want of Dec…Dio Decentius, I may be able to help.” I patted the bed beside me. “Come, sit. I will not bite.” She rolled her eyes at that.
“I hope not, gentildonna. I have been bitten enough for one night.” Cloelie let out a deep sigh, then shuffled to the bed and sat beside me. “And why do you think I want something of Dio Decentius?”
“Because, my girl, you play a game I know all the steps to. And it is easy to recognize an opening gambit when I hear one. Besides,” I smiled, and twitched a lock of Cloelie’s hair out of her face, “you are no docile cypress to bend and moan when your master wishes.”
Cloelie looked at me through lowered eyes, her lips tightly pressed. “And you are not my mother to lecture me about what I can and should do. I ask again, gentildonna, what is it you want?”
I replied as I had before, “To know what you want of Dio Decentius.” This time, though, I peered into her mind. No more being nice about it. I wasn’t going to play games with a mere mortal. Her eyes widened, it seemed she felt my push and tried to push back. Well, the girl was more resolute than Antonius, but equally unsuccessful.
My brows lifted, though I should have known. “The Gift, is it? You wish to seduce him into giving you the Gift, girl?
Cloelie’s face tightened. “And so what if I do? How else did you get it?” Her chin rose, and she glared at me.
I smiled softly. “Not wholly by those means, you may be sure. The Gift is forever. Unless you can convince Decentius that he loves you, not just wants you, there is no reason for him to offer you ‘forever’.” Obviously the pretty young thing didn’t know nearly as much as she thought about men. Or she’d only ever wanted small things from them, things that were worth sex. “If you want Decentius to give you the Gift, you’ll have to convince him he wants you around forever. Luckily for you, I’m willing to help you.” I relaxed against one of the bedposts. Not the most comfortable position, but I wanted Cloelie to know that it was her opportunity to miss, not mine.
Cloelie’s eyes flickered from her lap to my face and back, repeatedly. “Why?” she asked softly.
I smiled. Finally an intelligent question. “Because, my girl, I am always willing to help another woman. You can’t rely on men, eventually they’ll choose their own over you. And besides, I like a challenge.”
“A challenge” Cloelie retorted. “Would that be me, or Dio Decentius?” I smiled enigmatically, which brought a chuckle to Cloelie’s lips. “Don’t even try that. You can’t be more cryptic than him. The Oracle at Delphi might manage it, but no one else!” She shook her head like gull flicking off water.
“He is, isn’t he? That is what makes it a challenge. To read through the obfuscation and find the heart of it. For instance,” I dared to mention the one puzzle piece I had, “what do you know of a ‘child’?”
Cloelie’s brows rose, and she blinked. Nothing. “I do not know anything of his life before he arrived here. He does not speak of it, and Signore Umbrae tells us nothing. Or rather, he told us nothing. Now he simply sleeps in the cellar.”
I nodded. I was aware of Signore Umbrae’s departure from the realm of mortal affairs. He had spoken of it to me when he first brought me to immortality. That was why he had placed Decentius and I with the mission to make his line great; so that when he awoke, he would be in a place of power. Apparently Signore Umbrae was not an adept judge of character, for I certainly wasn’t worried about his power, and I doubted Decentius was either. Our own greatness, now that was another matter entirely.
“Then we shall have to gather the information.” A thought came to me. “And I know just where to start.” I rose from the bed in one flawless motion, my tunic flowing downward even as I stood. Cloelie pushed herself up from the bed, arms bunching, legs straining, and flattened her stola after she gained her balance. She had so much to learn.
I floated to the door, Cloelie’s plodding steps behind me, and waited until she opened it. What were slaves for, after all? I let her pass through first, though, not willing to have her intrude upon the privacy of my room. I kept my amusement silent as she leaned awkwardly across the sill to keep the door from closing behind her. Oh, she was pretty enough, but painfully unaware of the image she cultivated. Likely Cloelie didn’t even know she had an image to cultivate.
We walked back to the slaves’ quarters, and I nodded a dismal. Cloelie’s face contorted with indignation before she snorted and returned to her room. How had the girl gotten so far?
I stepped to the men’s door and tapped twice. The rough wood echoed under my knuckles, nearly drowning the sound of approaching steps. “Hello,” Decentius breathed behind me, “whom are you looking for?”
I smiled blandly and tried to keep my eyes from flicking with thought as I lied, “Someone to help me retrieve a few trunks from my old home. Can you recommend anyone?” I placed a gentle hand on his arm, something to soothe and distract. Decentius cocked an eyebrow but did not remove my hand.
“Would my servant Antonious suit your need?” His tone was cool with a hint of irony.
My fingers flexed in circles on Decentius’ forearm. “Wonderfully, I am sure.” His deep eyes sighted my violet ones along the ridge of his nose; in that understanding instant I felt a challenge not to simply find out more about this man, but to know him.
Then Decentius turned to rap smartly on the door to the men’s quarters, and the moment was broken. He hadn’t removed my hand from his arm, though.
The door was opened the merest crack and a pair of eyes peered through. The eyes gave a huff of surprise, and then its feet pattered away. A moment later Antonious appeared, glaring.
“Yes, Dio?” he growled.
Decentius was unfazed. “Miss..,” Decentius blinked and turned to me. He seemed to forgotten my name already.
“Claudia Antonia,” I purred.
“Miss Antonia has a task she wishes you to perform. You will assist her, and with better grace than you assist me.” Decentius did not wait for Antonius to respond, he inclined his to me, released my arm, and disappeared down the hallway.
I smiled as I watched Decentius disappear; there was something about him I couldn’t help but like. Antonius, however, was another matter. I turned back to face him and saw his glare unchanged. You’d think a slave would show a little more respect for his master, especially one with Decentius’ powers. Apparently Antonious didn’t share my opinion. Once Decentius had fully vanished into the darkness, Antonius turned his glare on me.
It didn’t last long, all I had to do was give him the merest hint of a smile and his expression softened. No, there was nothing soft about Antonious; calm, perhaps, was more accurate.
“Yes, gentildonna, what is it you wish me to do?” He looked at me expectantly.
“Nothing, just now,” I said, and watched his brows rise. “Actually, I would like you to walk with me a moment.” I had no desire to seduce Antonius, it would be demeaning, but he had responded strongly to my opening moves. First I needed to know if he knew any more about Decentius than Cloelie. I placed my hand on Antonius’ arm and guided him down the hall. “Tell me, Antonius, why do you glare after your master so?” I murmured, opening my eyes wide and batting my lashes.
Antonius’ face took on that spellbound expression he’d worn when I encountered him in the laundry. And I hadn’t even had to use an ability to do it. It surprised me that Decentius would choose such an easily manipulated slave.
“It is nothing, gentildonna, that should worry one such as you,” Antonius simpered.
“Oh, no, Antonius, I wish you to feel comfortable sharing with me. Your master and I share many interests, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” I kept my expression open, and focused on Antonius. It was not as though I would be hurt if I accidently ran into something.
Antonius narrowed his expression and twisted his fingers reflexively causing my bracelets to jangle. “He has told you what I am?” I nodded, though Decentius had told me nothing; implied something, but I was not sure what just yet. “It was my reward for helping him deal with Neo.” The bestial expression I had seen on Antonius’ face earlier reappeared; he seemed to be savouring a memory. I simply nodded again and waited for him to continue. “I found him, and he killed him. It was only fair, Neo had taken everything from Demetri, and now he took everything from Neo.” I could see Antonius’ teeth poking out as her grinned. So he and Decentius had been responsible for the death of someone named Neo on behalf of someone named Demetri. I was still missing something, and this brought me no nearer the mystery of the child.
“Yes, only fair,” I nodded. “It was a pity about the child,” I said, desperately hoping I was right.
Antonius snorted. “The child, the wife, the friend. It would be a pity if they had held him back. But they’re all dead know, and he’s better for it.” There was a wild gleam in Antonius’ eyes, and I doubted his concern for Decentius.
“Yes, true, but none of that explains why you glare at him so,” I said, turning the conversation back so that Antonius would not recall the detour. I was certain Decentius would detect any tampering with Antonius’ mind, I would just have to distract him the old fashioned way.
“He likes it,” Antonius muttered. I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Is there something you want of me or not...gentildonna?”
I sighed. “Yes, there are three large mahogany trunks at my former place of work in Siracusae; I wish them brought here.” I stopped walking and leaned against the wall. “The bordello is on the northeast road from the square. The dominatrice will likely give you trouble, but,” I leaned forward and smiled up into Antonius’ dark eyes, “nothing you can’t handle, I’m sure.”
A smile of predatory anticipation grew across Antonius’ face. “Do you permit me to deal with any trouble, gentildonna?” His eyes bore into mine.
“Yes,” I breathed, slightly unnerved. What, precisely, had Decentius rewarded him with?
“Good.” Antonius bared his teeth in a grin, and turned back to his quarters. “I will return with your trunks when the deed is done, gentildonna,” he growled over his shoulder.
As I watched him march back through the shadows, I reflected that it was good there was no one at the bordello to whom I was attached.
In the morning, I headed out to the stable to find a horse and cart as soon as I could. I’d eaten, and it stopped my stomach from rumbling, but it didn’t fill me with energy like Decentius’ blood. I wondered if I could take some from him while he were sleeping.
I glared at the other slaves and mentioned Decentius’ name; they set about getting my cart ready for me. I grinned, and decided to see if I could find a jar no one would miss. Walking across the beaten path back to the villa, the maggiordomo spotted me.
“Hello Antonius,” he smiled.
I looked up at him. “Hello.”
His brows raised. “What are you doing out here?”
“Donna Antonia has asked me to do a job for her. They’re getting things ready,” I said, jerking my head to point towards the stable.
“Oh? And where are you going?” His hands were clasped behind his back, and he swayed slightly on his feet as though about to pounce at any moment.
He was the maggiordomo, if I didn’t tell him someone would and then it would be trouble. “Siracusae.”
“”Siracusae? All that way? Alone?” He stared at me. “That’s a three day trip, more if your task is complicated.” He stared at me for a long moment. I began to wonder if he knew of my new status. “You should wait and discuss it with Dio Decentius. There will be things he will likely wish you to take along.”
I snorted. “He knows.” Decentius had told me to help Antonia, that was all he needed to tell me.
An expression of concern passed over the maggiordomo’s face. I hadn’t expected such weakness of him. “You should talk to Dio Decentius,” he said again. “Trust me.”
I sneered. Trust? Unlikely. “I will consider what you have said,” I replied. I bowed to the maggiordomo and moved past him before he could retain me any longer. I ignored his sigh and attempt to hold me back.
I went back to the slaves’ hall and marched into the kitchen. “A jar,” I demanded. The matron spooning out the slop we called porridge looked at me imperiously. “Give me a jar,” I demanded. I clenched my fists to keep my striking her, but she only looked dazed and hurried off. I peered around the kitchen while her back was turned and found a large knife, not large enough for a true dagger but sufficient. I grabbed it and stuck it under the belt tied at my waist, folding my tunic over to conceal it.
The matron returned, jar in hand. At least someone knew their place. I grabbed it and strode out of the hall making for Decenius’ quarters. A quick look verified that there was a lid to the jar, and that the clay had been fired and glazed. Earth absorbed blood; I did not want Decentius’ blood being absorbed by anyone or anything but myself.
I pushed open the wooden door slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible. I didn’t want to awaken Decentius, nor did I want any other slaves to come and investigate what I was doing. I could just see Decentius’ head laying on the dark pillow, as both were dark. He lay in sleep as one in death. It was difficult to see in his room with the window had been boarded over. I paused just inside the doorway to give my eyes a moment to adjust; I needed to see what I was doing, there was no time for mistakes.
Once my eyes had adjusted I saw quite well, far better than I had in nights past. I wondered if this were another benefit of imbibing Decentius’ blood. If so, I was glad I had come. I pulled the knife out from within the folds of my tunic, hearing its husky whisper of encouragement. I walked carefully to the edge of the bed, keeping one eye always on Decentius. I could not hear his breathing as he slept, so there would be little warning if he suddenly awoke. I edged around the bed, my sandals slapping quietly on the tiled floor. I should have removed them, bare feet were quieter.
He did not move as I made my way to the head of the bed; he slept as if dead. I held the knife in my right hand, ready, as I pulled back the blankets to expose Decentius’ arm. Still he did not move. Holding the jar up, I pulled on the lid with my teeth removing the stopper. I wanted to spit it out, it was blocking my ability to breathe effectively, but the small bounce it would create when it hit Decentius’ bed might give me away, so I held it in my mouth. Watching Decentius’ face for any signs of awareness, I lowered the knife and jar toward his arm. Still nothing.
Since there was no light, the blade couldn’t glow or flash. I felt slightly disappointed by this, but that disappeared when the point sank easily into the flesh above Decentius’ wrist. I prepared myself to hold him down, to run; anything. He still did not move. I pulled the knife back, a small slash no bigger than my small finger opened. The blood did not gush forth but oozed slowly outward. This gave me time to position the jar. This also meant it would take longer to fill it. I decided run the jar across Decentius’ arm, scooping up the oozing blood. After three passes, it was half full; two mouthfuls if I was sparing. I waited, eyes fixed on Decentius’ face, ears trained on the hall outside the door, as the blood oozed again. The third pass had the jar up to nearly full, perhaps even four mouthfuls. I decided that would do, I couldn’t risk being caught here.
I placed the lid back on the jar, and wiped the knife on the underside of a blanket before sliding it back into the folds of my tunic. Once my right hand was free, I pressed on the lid until the stopper stuck tight in the jar, then pulled Decentius’ blanket quickly over his arm and made for the door.
Once outside the door, I smiled. It was done, and he had not so much as stirred. I took my jar and headed back to the stable.
The maggiordomo was talking with the stable slaves when I arrived. The cart was ready, and there was even a blanket. Apparently they were smart enough to include basic necessities without being told. Or perhaps the maggiordomo had made them.
I strode past the maggiordomo, and took the reins from the slave holding them. I mounted the cart, sat, and slapped the horse; it began to move. The maggiordomo stepped in front. “Stay,” he said, looking at my horse. The horse promptly stopped. I flicked it but it didn’t move.
I throttled the reins in my hands and looked at the maggiordomo. “What do you want?” I asked. He looked up, staring straight into my eyes.
“I want you to think before you leave. You are important here.” He did know of my change of status, then. Perhaps he wanted me indebted to him. I saw his eyes move to the jar beside me on the seat. He took a deep breath then smiled. “Perhaps you are not so impudent as I had supposed. You may leave.” The man patted my horse’s head as he stepped aside.
“Thank you,” muttered. I flicked the reins again. This time the horse moved.
As the horse trotted along the packed dirt that led to the main road, I could feel the maggiordomo’s eyes on my back. I did not indulge him by turning around. Over the clattering cart, and the noise of the horse, I heard him mutter, “That boy is headed for trouble, mark my words.” There was no reply. I ground my teeth and focused on the road ahead.
Driving a horse cart is a mindless, smelly business. The horse does what you tell it, having been broken to human desires long ago. It sweats and stinks; it shits and stinks. You get hot and sweat and stink. The dust from all those places that were not important enough to have paved roads comes up and coats you, and the horse. And stinks. The sun melts your brain, and you plod onwards.
At least the road wasn’t busy. No idiots to bother me. I decided to just get food in Megara Hyblea, I’d sleep in the cart on the outskirts. The maggiordomo hadn’t given me money, nor had Donna Antonia; there was no way I could afford a hostel. Food I’d steal, but stealing a room caused too much hassle. It didn’t take much with food, just a casual distraction and a well timed movement; I was gone before they noticed anything missing.
As at breakfast, the food merely sat in my stomach. It appeared to do something; I was feeling well enough but just ordinary. I did not want to feel ordinary. I knew better than to open the jar with others around, though; I did not want to be accused of blood sacrifice. The Roman influence was everywhere, and Rome looked unkindly on any blood sacrifice they had not personally approved.
The sky was dark when I pulled the cart off the side of the road about an hour south of Megara Hyblea. No one had followed me; my necessary thievery had gone unnoticed. The moon was beginning to wane, but it was still full enough to provide adequate light for what I needed. I moved into the back of the cart where the stable slaves had left the old covering of straw. I pulled the blanket over myself, and took the jar from where I had placed it when I passed through Megara Hyblea; hidden under the seat, covered with straw. The lid was still securely on.
I held the jar tightly and pulled the lid off. The scent of blood came wafting on the night air, drowning the ever-present smell of the sea. I put the jar to my lips and swallowed one mouthful; I wanted it to last. I felt the strength surge through me, my tiredness gone. I thought of Decentius; he was likely awake now and noticing what I had done. How would he react? And what would he do to Donna Antonia when he realized I was gone at her request? I smiled imagining his cold rage focused on her. It was really too bad I couldn’t be there. But there would always be another time.
Now I had no desire to sleep, but this horse was not going to move another step. I moved some straw from the back of the cart to the front where my feet had been and wrapped the jar in that. Then I sprang down and moved to the sleeping horse. It gave me a drozy stare as I unbuckled it, then whinnied loudly as I picked it up and placed it in the back of the cart. It would not get us any further tonight but I could. The strength of Decentius’ blood pounded through my veins and I would make use of it as long as it lasted.
I strode back to the front of the cart and hefted the poles onto my shoulders; I didn’t need a harness, not being a dumb animal. A little stretch and we were on our way. The cart was nearly light, horse and all.
I got us halfway to Siracusae before the power of the blood began to fail. A faint pre-dawn light showed a weedy grain field to left of the road. I pulled the cart over into the grain and lifted out the horse. I made certain he was harnessed before falling into the back for sleep.
By the time I awoke the sun was high. When I sat up, I noticed the horse had dragged us in the direction of the road. Fortunately, it was too distracted by its stomach to move very far; there was a large patch bare of grain around it.
I stood, brushed the straw from my tunic. The knife was still wrapped inside it. I checked my torso; there were no marks, nor any splattering on my tunic. I moved the knife to right side, where it could be easily drawn. Sitting in the front of the cart, I snapped the reins, twice, to get the horse’s attention. When I snapped them the third time it drew blood, but the horse finally stopped eating. Now that I had it, I turned the cart toward the road. It took the horse longer to pull us out than it had taken me to drag us in, and I was certain I weighed far less than it did. I ground my teeth but refused to waste a mouthful of blood because of a lazy animal.
The road entered Siracusae from the north, passing through expansive villas on the outskirts and edging ever nearer the city centre – the square. The market stalls bordered it on the south, the temples to east and west, but the north, always, was left open. There was talk of the Romans changing this, if they ever came, but I doubted it would make much difference. Sicily had fallen to so many conquers, they’d just bend their necks and pretend; then do what they wanted when the conquerors weren’t looking.
The road to the bordello lead southeast from the square; the road to the bordello always lead southeast from the square. Donna Antonia had told me this bordello was housed by Signora Euphemia. The cart rumbled down the road, several slaves and equites yelling for me to watch out. I ignored them and searched for the red door. When I found it, I pulled the cart up alongside and reached down for my jar. With a glance to check that no one was paying me special regard, I took a swallow. The blood surged through my veins and I thought how proud Decentius would be when I returned home having successfully completed my task.
I sprang down from the cart and marched forward. Turning to the horse, I growled, “Stay”. There posts to lash it to. The slaves inside would no doubt take it to the proper place for loading the cart, once I had gotten their recognition. I strode to the red door and rapped loudly upon it.
Within moments a burly slave opened the door. “Yes?” he said.
“I have come for Donna Antonia’s things,” I smiled.
The burly adornment looked down his sculpted nose at me, aware, by my appearance, that there was Sicel blood in my veins, not just Greek. I stared back. The constant derision of those just like him, who were only mere slaves themselves, was why I had run to Leontinoi. I was not upset by my capture there, for it had led to this new improved Antonius. And this new improved Antonius would tear the head off the slave now looking down his nose at me, shortly.
“Donna Antonia?” he sneered. “She’s been gone for months. Nothing of hers left now; it all defaults after one month.” He snorted, and moved to shut the door. I placed my foot in the doorway. He scowled at me and pushed the door harder.
I laughed as I stepped forward driving the door opening, and causing the pretty boy to fall in a lump at my feet. “I have come for Donna Antonia’s things,” I repeated, staring down my nose. I watched him squirm backward along the tiled hall. I stepped through the door and slammed it behind me; a small smear of wetness appeared along the pretty boy’s path. “Pathetic,” I snarled. “Get up and take me to her things.”
His eyes glazed over in fear, but he got up off the floor. I could see the stain of urine on the hem of his tunic, and smell it over the flowery perfume of the bordello. He marched stiffly down the hall and up a set of wooden stairs. The whores we passed curled their noses at us, but left us alone.
“Donna Antonia’s trunks are in here,” the pretty boy said, pointing to a room whose entrance was draped with a woven tapestry of Aphrodite and Eros. I pushed through the tapestry and peered inside.
There, naked and sweating, was one of the whores working. Her client was oblivious, moaning and thrusting, but she met my eyes with a glare before turning back to her work. “Oh, signore, oh!” she moaned, hands on his cheeks ensuring his gaze did not wander.
The first chest was near the door. I hoisted it over my shoulder and walked back out the door. I noticed the whore’s look annoyance as I turned, but she dared not stop or say anything. I pushed aside the tapestry and found the pretty boy waiting. “Follow me,” I growled. His footsteps thudded behind as we descended the stairs.
When we reached the main door I glared at him until he finally opened it, then jerked my chin to point him the way out. Chest laid securely in the back of the chart, I asked, “So where’s the real loading area?”
“Out back, s..s..sin…” his voice faded, trembling, and he pointed.
“Lead,” I ordered. He walked backward toward the edge of the building, hands behind him, and didn’t turn his back until he reached the corner. I slapped the horse, and it moved slowly forward. The alley was only slightly wider than the cart, but I was skilled enough to get the horse in properly. Every few steps the pretty looked over his shoulder at me, making sure I hadn’t snuck up on him, no doubt. Coward.
A whiff of citrus came from further down the alley. The pretty boy stopped bedside a low hedge border a small terrace complete with lemon tree. Someone had planted the hedge to cover a back egress. I lashed the reins to a tree branch, and moved towards the door. The pretty boy hesitated. “Come,” I demanded. “Lead.”
The smell of yeast, coupled with the heat and moisture that hit me the moment he opened the door, told me exactly what room we were entering. I clutched the hilt of my knife in my left hand as we passed through the door, and kept my head down. Looking at the women working here, I doubted they were allowed elsewhere in the building.
“Ho!” said one, arms covered in flour, as she approached the pretty boy. “Who’s he? We weren’t told about any delivery.”
“Leave be, Benedetta,” pretty boy hissed. Not quick on his feet, this one; as if the harpy would be placated by such a response.
“This is my kitchen, boy, and I will know who goes in it!” She shoved him out of the way with one sway of her large hips, and strode over to me. “So, then, who are you, and what is your business here?”
I bowed low, smirking, and came up eyes penitent, right hand pressed to my breast in supplication. “If it please, Signore Benedetta, I am but a humble slave sent to retrieve Donna Antonia’s things.” I gazed upward into her creased face and saw the snort before I heard it.
“Donna Antonia? She wants her things retrieved now? I think Donna Euphemia will have something to say about that!” She turned, spoon and hand, and swatted the pretty boy like an errant mule. “Go you great ninny, go and tell Euphemia. You know full well I can’t go up there like this!” She spread her arms in frustration, and turned back to me as the pretty boy disappeared. “You, stay here.”
“No,” I stated, staring at her, “I must retrieve Donna Antonia’s things.” I took a step closer to her and the reek of yeast curled my nose.
She snorted at my look of derision. “Stay here.”
My face was a hand-span from hers, and I glared into her eyes. “Stand aside.” She stepped meekly toward her rolling table, and I darted past her to catch the pretty boy.
He hadn’t gone far; he was just at the bottom of the stairs when I entered the hall. He paused to look when he heard my footsteps then stopped to wait. “Go,” I grunted as I reached the bottom of the stairs, “you’re blocking the way.” He turned from me and started upwards, birdlike.
Up the stairs and back to the tapestry of Aphrodite and Eros. This time there was no moaning behind the tapestry. The man had gone, and the whore was dressed and awaiting our return. “D..donna Euphemia,” the pretty boy bowed.
I eyed Donna Euphemia up and down. Her hair shone brown in the light of the lamp, her lips full and pouting, coated with some glaring carmine substance, her eyes and cheeks painted garishly. She had none of Donna Antonia’s haunting beauty. Her breasts were large and hung like those of a milk-goat; her hips were as wide as my horse. “Buona sera, Signora Euphemia,” I said, grinning.
She took three steps across the room and slapped me. “You will call me ‘Donna Euphemia’ and you will tell me why you are stealing my property before you fetch it back.” She stood, hands, on overlarge hips, and awaited my answer.
My grinned broadened even as I felt Decentius’ blood begin to surge through me. I stalked toward her. “I will call you whatever I wish, whore, and you will beg me not to take your life with those trunks you have stolen.” I reached my hand up toward her throat, and she took a retreating step glancing at the pretty boy for help. He just hung his head, staring at his feet; no help for her at all.
She retreated toward the bed, and I let her; it was not as though she could have escaped me if I’d chosen otherwise. I advanced slowly, and waiting until she fell back on her bed. I leaned over, grasped her neck, and whispered in her ear, “This is no time fore work, puttana.” I watched her as widen. She attempted to scuttle further back into the bed, but I held her throat hard, and she stopped, choking. “Now,” I growled, “we will go downstairs. Your man and I will carry the trunks. You will tell your people I am free to take them to Donna Antonia.” An inspiration worthy of Minerva struck me, and barred my teeth in my smile. She pushed herself into the bedding, trying any way she could think of to get away from me. “No, you will tell them this building, everything and everyone in it belong to Donna Antonia. And you will write it out, or have one of them do it for you.”
I lifted her by her throat, pulling her off the lavish bed so her feet dangled above the floor. She pawed at my wrist like a day old kitten that needed drowning; then her movements began to slow. I shook her awake with a quick jerk. “Answer, and you may live; remain silent and die for certain.” Her head lolled forwards, I decided to take it for acceptance. I dropped her onto the bed and stood watching as the life returned to her. She coughed, rubbed her throat, and then moved to get up. She stopped when she saw me watching.
“Alright,” she sputtered, “you win. Now let me go down and tell them.” I gave my most mocking bow as she rose from the bed, and moved cautiously around me. I lifted the chest nearest the bed over one shoulder; I saw her stumble a step watching.
I kicked the pretty boy. “You, grab that one and bring it. Now!” He jumped to obey. I heard him struggling with the chest as I followed Euphemia out.
She had darted ahead and down the stairs. I chuckled to myself. It was always more fun when they fought back.
I walked down the stairs; no one was at the bottom, so I advanced on the kitchen. When I strode through the door, there they were. Benedetta and the kitchen slaves were standing between me and Euphemia. Euphemia grinned, arms crossed in front of her.
“Put the chest down!” Benedetta demanded. She had replaced her wooden spoon with a carving knife. She held the knife steady, aimed at my heart.
With a slight lift of my hand, I slammed the front of the trunk into Benedetta’s face. She staggered backward, blood spurting from her nose, knife clattering to floor. I balanced the trunk on my palm and began to spin it. The slaves scampered backward, abandoning Benedetta, and running past Euphemia toward the terrace.
“Stop!” I bellowed. The slaves stopped, Benedetta knelt clutching her bloody nose, but white-faced Euphemia began to retreat. I swung the trunk again, a handspan from her nose, and set it neatly on the table. “You caused this,” I growled. Stepping toward her, I drew the knife from the folds of my tunic, “And now you will pay.”
She stood, trapped against the kneading table. I raised the knife to her throat. “You will die the way you lived,” with my right hand I tore off her stola and flung it at the cowering slaves, “a puttana.” She squeaked against the knife, and thrust herself back against the table. The scent of fear wafted from her. I slid my hand between her thighs, grabbed her lower lips and pulled. Her scream made the blood pound in my ears, but she was wet. I pressed the knife against her throat and she obligingly bent backwards, legs spreading in welcome. With a simple tug on the knot of my undergarment, it fell to the floor and I tore into her.
Her eyes began to go blank, so I nicked her throat; that got her attention. “Beg for death, and I will give it to you.” With each thrust I drew the knife downwards, tracing a line of blood across her throat that so many had sucked and kissed; across the breasts the any man could fondle for a price.
When the tip reached the left nipple, she screamed, “Anything! Anything! I’ll do anything you want! I’ll sign it. Please, oh please.”
I grinned toothily, holding the knife just above the nipple, and thrusting hard. “Good. Benedetta, be a dear, and fetch paper and ink?” I watched as the bloody faced Benedetta slammed open the kitchen door revealing the pretty boy poised on its far side. “And you, take those to the cart.” I pointed to the trunk on his shoulders, and the one on the table beside me. The pretty boy continued through the door, and out toward the cart. As soon as the doorway was free, Benedetta ran through.
I fought to slow my thrusting. The fear in this place was intoxicating; Euphemia’s face was wet with tears, and the slaves quivered, faces hidden against the wall.
Benedetta burst through the door, paper and inkpot in hand. A peacock feather quill bobbed ridiculously from the top of the ink pot. “Write it,” Euphemia wept, “whatever he says, write it!”
Benedetta stared blankly at her mistress. “But…I…” she stammered.
I glared at her, a growl in my throat. “Which of you can write?” I asked the huddled slaves. One began to quiver harder than the rest. “You, in the black tunic, come here!” The slave pulled himself slowly from the huddle, hands clasped tightly in front of him, eyes fixed on the floor. I breathed in his fear, and heard Euphemia exclaim as I thrust her hard against the table. The slave shuffled to my side but refused to look up. As if I cared.
“Write this: ‘Donna Euphemia deeds her establishment, its grounds, property and goods to Donna Claudia Antonia’,” I dictated. He scratched at the paper, and then showed it to me. I nodded as if the incomprehensible black squiggles meant something. Then I leaned into Euphemia, and breathed, “Now, sign it.” Eyes darting to the knife, Euphemia leaned carefully to pick up the quill then scratched a hasty mark on the bottom of the page her eyes flicking between it and the knife.
“Good,” I sighed as she dropped the quill beside the page, “now let’s finish.” Knife still in my hand, I braced myself against the table shoving hard and fast into Euphemia. I had succeeded beyond what Donna Antonia had asked; I could see her smiling face as I showed her the deed and feel her warm hands caressing my buttocks. I drove into her, and she moaned in pleasure.
“Oh signore, signore!” Euphemia’s whorish voice brought me back. It was her hands, not Donna Antonia’s, fondling my buttocks. Her neck was bent back in pleasure but her painted eyes sought mine. “Oh signore,” she moaned, her hands grabbing my buttocks and pulling me toward her, “you are such a man! Never has such pleasure been mine!” Her flapping tongue slobbered across her carmine lips.
Anger pulsed through me, and I drove into her. “Puttana! Puttana!” I could feel my climax begin; I was about to lose control and Euphemia’s gloating smile said she knew it. Surging, I swung the knife upwards as I thrust into Euphemia, and I plunged it downwards into her heart as I drove into her.
Limp against her limp and bloody body, I panted. Then I felt Decentius’ blood fill me again with energy, leaving behind the languor of climax. I stepped back, pulling both my knife and myself out of Euphemia’s body. I snatched the paper from the table and stared around at the pale faces of the slaves. “This changes nothing. Except that you will have to dispose of the body.” I smiled at the cringes. “Donna Antonia will arrive before the moon is full. Make sure everything is in readiness.”
Paper in hand, knife tucked securely in my tunic once more, I lifted the remaining trunk and strode out the back to the cart. The pretty boy was cowering in the garden. I grinned, “Don’t worry, I’m leaving now.” His shoulders dropped in relief. “But my mistress or I will be back before the full moon.” And they straightened, again. “And be sure to dispose of the body, will you?” Tossing the chest into the back, I sprang into the cart with Decentius’ blood fading in strength. Not a problem, my own strength would suffice to return to the villa. I smiled imagining Decentius and Antonia’s reactions to my work, and lashed the horse onward.
I was sitting in the garden admiring the sliver of moonlight when Decentius stormed up. His body was as taught as the wind before a thunderstorm, and his face was set in annoyance.
“What have you done with my servanti?” he said through clenched teeth. His arms hung at his sides, rigid with suppression.
I blinked, mouth open, then smiled. “I did precisely what you suggested. I told him to fetch my things. Is something the matter?” I sat looking up into his frozen face, my eyes wide and innocent.
“He’s gone!” Decentius spat, “Gone! He left this morning with not a word to me. Nothing but this!” He shoved his right forearm into my face. I smelt blood. Peering at Decentius’ forearm in the dim moonlight, it took several seconds before my nose and eyes could cooperate. I found the cut at his wrist as much by smell as by sight.
I looked up in confusion. “What is that? And why would you think it had anything to do with me?”
Decentius stared at me, considering. “Have you no servanti of your own?” I shook my head. He grunted and sat down beside me on the small stone wall. I turned my head and looked at him. He sat erect but thoughtful, hands resting on his thighs, his eyes gazing into nothingness a few feet past his knees. The darkness of his tunic and hair, with only the piercing blue of his eyes to lighten it, suited him; Decentius had taken well to the shadows.
“A servanti,” Decentius continued after several moments, “stands between us and the mortals.” I must have let out an unintentional start of confusion for he turned his calm face toward me. “They take our blood, as we took Signore Umbrae’s, but retain their own mortal blood. They possess some of our powers but not all, nor do they possess our aversion to light.”
“Is he immortal?” I asked.
Decentius nodded slowly. “As long as he continues to receive my Immortal blood.” He turned his wrist upward again, showing the cut Antonius had made.
“So he took some for his journey?” I inquired. I placed one finger on Decentius’ wrist and drew it softly along the cut. A soft smirk played across Decentius’ lip, and when he blue eyes met mine they held amusement.
“Yes,” he nodded tersely. He twisted his wrist taking my hand in his. “If you did not put him up to it, I am wondering who did.” His thumb ran idly along the edge of my hand as he gazed thoughtfully into the distance.
My eyes flicked from his distant expression to his idly moving thumb. I wet my lips, thinking of a way to engage him. “Are there any other servanti he might have learned it from?” I asked.
Again, his head swiveled toward me, eyes wide, and grin triumphant. “Yes, in fact, there is one other.” He rose, tense and poised, then held out a hand to me. “Maggiordomo Theophilus is servanti to Signore Umbrae. I should have thought of it at once. Thank you,” he gave a small bow of his head to me, “for prompting my memory. Shall we go speak with him?”
Decentius had entwined his arm with mine. Did he assume I would resist his request, or was he telling me that it was not a request? I smiled and nodded back to him. “It would be most intriguing,” I replied honestly. I placed my hand on his and allowed him to lead me back into the villa.
I did not even have time to wonder how we were to find Maggiordomo Theophilus, when Decentius acted. He looked at the first slave we encountered, and though I do not think he knew we were there before that moment, the slave turned to Decentius at once. “Yes, Dio Decentius,” the young man said.
“Where is the maggiordomo?” Decentius replied in his precise voice.
The slave shivered. I watched as his eyes flickered back and forth in thought. Decentius did not move; his eyes were fixed on the slave. “I last saw him heading for the barn, Dio. That was quite some time ago, though, before the light had fully gone.” The slave bent his head in apology.
“Good enough,” Decentius replied, and we left the slave behind to head for the barn. Decentius kept ahold of my arm, guiding me gently without pushing or pulling; like a skillful dancer might direct his partner. The stones of the floor pattered beneath our feet as we wove our way through the villa toward the egress to the barn and fields. The lack of light, for only slaves carried lamps at night, bothered us not at all.
Emerging from the stone doorway out into the night air, I noted that the moon was nearly at its height. Few of the slaves would be awake now; they did most of their duties during the day, only some few were awake at night doing I knew not what. But, as there was lamplight coming from the barn entrance, at least one was awake and inside.
A single lamp casts shadows darker than the high moon. Decentius released me as we passed through the barn door and gestured toward the deep shadows inside, a finger on his lips. I smiled and nodded.
After the darkness and gentle moonlight, the lamplight was nearly painful as I peered toward it watching Decentius approach where Maggiordomo Thephilus was talking to another slave. Decentius remained in shadow well past the edge of the lamplight. He was using his abilities to approach the maggiordomo unseen.
“I want those carts of grain sent out to Messena tomorrow. Tertius Maurus will meet you at the harbor,” Maggiordomo Theophilus was instructing the slave in front of him, an older man with a bowed grey head that nodded at each pause.
As the slave looked up to reply, or simply head out to his bed, Decentius released his shadows and appeared behind the maggiordomo. “And precisely why, Theophilus, are you giving members of my household instructions without my knowledge?” Decentius voice was as cool and soft as the night air, but far harder to ignore.
The slave’s face turned white and he took a step back, hoping to be ignored. Maggiordomo Theophilus, however, turned precisely to face Decentius and did not appear awed. “’Your’ household?” Theophilus did not bother keeping the condescension from his voice, “This household belongs to Signore Umbrae. You are here at his mercy, as am I.” Theophilus was older than Decentius, his hair was speckled with grey where Decentius’ was sheer black, but there was no mistaking him for a weak old man.
“Perhaps,” Decentius replied, and I had to strain my ears to hear him, “but he is asleep and I am in charge. And before you bother reminding me that he will awaken one day to take stock, that day is not now. Now, you will report to me as Head of Household, or it will not be Signore Umbrae’s mercy you need beg.” Decentius had not moved, and the lamplight had not faltered, yet there seemed a darkness radiating from him.
Theophilus bowed his fractionally, but neither his body nor expression, were docile.
“You,” Decentius called to the slave attempting to hide where the lamplight began to dim, “do as he says, but report to me when you return.” The slave nodded then scampered toward the barn door, knowing a dismal when he heard one.
“Now,” Decentius returned his gaze to the maggiordomo, “you will tell me what it is you have taught my servanti.”
Maggiordomo Theophilus blinked but did not waiver under Decentius’ unrelenting gaze. “What makes you think I have taught that barbarian anything?” Theophilus sneered.
Decentius stepped forward, and I saw Theophilus flinch as Decentius thrust his forearm into Theophilus’ face. “This makes me think you have been giving him… tips.” I wished I could see Decentius’ face; his voice was so cold and quiet I could not tell if he was threatening or mocking, or whom.
Theophilus’ eyes darted to the forearm and back. A grin, this one definitely mocking, began to spread across his face. “Your servanti paid me no heed when I sought to question him. If he thought to that,” again the eyes darted to Decentius’ forearm, “he thought of it himself. Perhaps you do not know him as well as you think.”
The shadows began to draw around Decentius but still Theophilus grinned. I stepped forward. Theophilus spared me a single glance, but it was Decentius whose face I wanted to see. And when I saw it, I was surprised Theophilus was still grinning. Pure cold anger radiated from Decentius’ eyes and the gritting of his teeth. With a quick glance at Theophilus’ still grinning face, I understood; he was provoking Decentius’. Without Decentius’, Theophilus would stand in charge as Signore Umbrae’s highest servant.
I touched Decentius’ shoulder. His eyes, and nothing else, swiveled toward me. “Why are you troubling yourself so with this…slave?” I let the contempt drip from tongue, and saw Theophilus’ sharp intake of breath. Now he was the one angry and out of step.
Decentius focused on me a long moment, then smiled and lifted the hand resting on his shoulder to his lips. “You are right, my dear Antonia.” He returned to his calm gaze to the now fuming maggiordomo. “If you interfere with me again, there will be consequences. I do not care whose servanti you are.” Theophilus grunted an acknowledgement, and Decentius and I turned our backs on him and left the barn.
Instead of guiding me back inside, Decentius lead me around the villa to where we could see the moon on the ocean, and hear the waves lapping. Well, hear them better, they were audible throughout the villa with a little concentration. He released my arm and took my two hands in his, holding me at a distance and examining me awhile. His olive skin looked white in the moonlight, and I wondered if he had eaten tonight.
“You humble me, Donna Antonia,” he whispered. I started, and made to retort but he held up his hand that I bide. “I knew Theophilus would be trouble, yet I allowed him to goad me, and nearly did something rash. It is thanks to your quick thinking that I did not. I am glad I brought you along. I should have known Signor Umbrae would have chosen wisely.” A small smile played around Decentius’ lips. He raised a hand and touched my cheek softly.
“Indeed,” I said, stepping toward him, “I am not just another pretty face.” My smile echoed his. I placed a finger on his skin where it emerged from his tunic and began to trace between his neck and throat. I didn’t raise my eyes to his until I felt his hand on my ass. He grinned and leaned toward me.
His lips brushed mine, pressure not more than the wind off the sea, but the moment they did the blood began to pound in my ears. I felt his hands grab my ass and clutch me to him, even as I wound my own hands behind his neck and pulled his mouth closer. I opened my mouth and he thrust his tongue in, his teeth grinding against mine as his erection ground against my pelvis. I was not sure whose moan I heard, or if it were only the wind. One of his hands left my ass and was on my shoulder, slipping under the fabric of my stola till it fell off my shoulder and exposed my breast. And then it was at my breast, pulling and twisting my nipple until another moan sounded, and this time I knew it was mine. I lifted one hand away from his neck, Decentius did not need prompting to kiss me harder, and slid it under the hem of his tunic caressing his cool buttocks. This time the moan was his.
With blood pounding in my ears and Decentius’ hands and mouth on me, as mine were on him, time became unending. When we broke apart our eyes upon each other were full of lust. I bent a knee to kneel before him, but Decentius caught my arm in his, the calm expression on his face belied by the hunger in his eyes. “It is time to go inside and talk, Antonia.” His voice was composed, but I glanced at him as we began to make our way back to the villa and saw a shadowy smile.
Decentius said nothing to me as we walked back, but I did not worry. There was no aura of menace to him now; he was back in control of himself. It amused me how men felt the need to do that; you knew they wanted you, but they must control themselves and make certain it was on their terms. As though the how and when changed anything.
I wondered at the pounding of the blood in my ears as we kissed. I had not yet had to work since Signore Umbrae had raised me to Immortal, nor had I taken pleasure for myself. Decentius had felt it too, of that I was certain. We would see what happened when he allowed himself to give in.
We walked through the villa, Decentius escorting me back to his quarters. I was careful not to smile. He opened the door and gestured for me to precede him inside. I moved across to the bed and lay sprawled across it propped on one elbow. The shoulder of my stola fell down and exposed the edge of the breast Decentius had fondled. As he crossed in front of me to pace the room, I saw his smile of appreciation.
Decentius paced alongside the bed, throwing glances at my sprawled form each time he turned at the bed’s end. “Messena has fallen, Naxos and Katane. We cannot walk into Roman territory and demand an audience, yet we must talk to one of them before they take the island. Siracusae is the heart of Sicilian power; they certainly have spies there, Romans are always after power. What we need to do,” he stopped pacing and stared pensively, “is have someone there waiting to meet them.”
“In Siracusae?” I asked, propping myself up slightly, my sleeve falling further down my shoulder. Decentius was too lost in thought to notice, he merely nodded. “But that is where Antonius has gone; to Siracusae to retrieve my things.” I did not mention where Antonius was retrieving them from.
Decentius muttered to himself as he walked idly toward the bed and plopped down beside me. “If you had told me beforehand; if Antonius had come to me first, we could be moving into position even now.” I saw his fists clench on the bed spread. “Will you still have contacts in Siracusae once your goods are retrieved, Antonia?” Decentius turned and looked down at me.
I turned slightly, falling completely on my back and smiling up at Decentius. Lust flashed in his eyes, and his clenched fist moved to stroke my breast. “I may,” I said, “I can always go back myself and apologize for Antonius presumptuous actions.”
“Excellent.” Decentius chuckled deep in his throat. “And could you stay there? Have you the resources to learn when a Roman has arrived?” I nodded, grinning. One girl or another, at the bordello we heard everything. “You are certain?”
I smiled, reaching a hand to caress Decentius’ jaw. “I am,” I said, “but you shall have to trust me. Can you do that, Decentius?” I watched his eyes flick, uncertain. They stopped, the blue focusing on my own violet. I felt a push in my head and laughed. “Now, Decentius, that is not trust!”
He sgrabbed my wagging finger, but the pressure in my head abated. “No, it is not. Very well, Antonia, I will trust you. And pray to Poena that does not change.”
Eyes wide, I looked innocently up at Decentius. Poena? It appeared Decentius had trust issues. “It won’t,” I said, raising my hand again to his cheek.
“Good. Then perhaps we should celebrate the beginnings of our plan?” He smiled and resumed stroking my breast, loosing the ties at my waist with his other hand. I shrugged, moving my sleeves downward to expose both my breasts. Decentius licked his lips, and swung one leg over top of me. Kneeling above me, he removed his hand from my breast momentarily to pull off my stola. Then, a hand now twisting each nipple, he bent his head to suck at my throat.
The pounding pulse of desire began the moment Decentius touched his lips to my throat; it pounded everywhere his lips touched: first my neck, then one breast, one nipple, the second breast, the second nipple, the other side of my throat. I bit back a moan as Decentius lifted his head. He saw it on my face. “Antonia,” he growled as I raised my lips to him.
He pressed his lips against mine, his erection grinding into my bucking pelvis. The pulse was everywhere, I could not shut it out. “Decentius!” I screamed, as he stopped to kneel above me, yanking his tunic over his head, then tossing it casually onto the floor with my stola. I scratched my nails up his torso following the wake of his tunic.
Decentius kept his eyes on mine sliding downward until his phallus hovered between my legs. He looked down, briefly, and pushed into me hard. The pulse moved to my loins. Our eyes locked, my legs wrapped around his ass and we began to move with the pulsing. Over and over we rose and fell together, the pulse in our loins demanding more. My lips tingled. I grabbed Decentius by the neck and pulled his mouth to mine. His tongue thrust in my mouth matching the thrusts of his phallus. I moaned into his mouth. He moved, licking my neck, sucking my neck, thrusting. “Eros!” I growled, and wetness ran down my ass.
Decentius pushed up, leering down at my now relaxing state, and drove hard. I squeezed around him, watching his eyes widen; I was right, he had never had a skilled lover. He closed his eyes, mouth hanging open, guttural moans increasing in volume.
He added his own wetness to the bedsheet, then propped his head on one hand staring down at me. “Antonia,” he muttered, his other hand idly tracing my breast.
“Yes?” I grinned, scratching his back. The pulse had lessened but I could still feel it’s beat. We were far from done. I watched Decentius focus on something for a moment, and felt him grow hard within me. With a movement, I pushed to roll him over. With a laugh he obliged.
“Do you want more, Antonia?” Now he had a breast in each hand and was pinching my nipples.
I bent, licking his neck, biting his ear. “Don’t you?” I growled.
He twisted my nipples, turning his mouth to mine, “Eros, yes.”
The bed, the wall, the floor, bent over the guardaroba, on my knees, from behind; so many ways did we fornicate and more, the pulse only abating, never leaving; until, at last, as I rode Decentius’ phallus once more, his mouth on my one nipple, his hand on the other, we heard the patter of the slaves’ footsteps outside the door going about their pre-dawn chores. I quickened my pace.
This time, after we had climaxed, we drew apart. The pulse died; my body ached remembering that part of Decentius it had been joined with. I sat up, looking around the room for my scattered belongings. I didn’t have long to dress and return to my chambers before the sun rose.
I felt Decentius’ hand stroke my back. “If you wish you may stay, Antonia.” His voice was scarce above a whisper. I turned to look at his face; such vulnerability and hope, as I could never have dreamed he would possess.
I lay back down, an arm across his torso, my head on his silent chest. “I’d love to, Decentius,” I smiled. He relaxed, encircling me with an arm. A perfect picture.
When I awoke the next evening my head was still on Decentius’ chest, and his arm was still around me. I shifted to look up at him, without breath it was difficult to tell if he were awake. His eyes were closed, his face relaxed. I raised my hand caressed his sleeping jaw. Never since I had become a woman had I slept an entire night in the arms of a lover. Rarely had I slept in their arms at all, but when I did it was always necessary to wake and steal away before they awoke. I did not want to do that now.
Decentius’ eyelids flickered, and he smiled down at me. “Good evening, Antonia.” His arm encircling me began to stroke my back, moving inexorably toward my ass. I felt his erection stir against my leg.
“Good evening, Decentius.” I drew my hand down, and rolled off him. Grinning, he rolled above me, mouth pressing mine as he thrust into me. The pulse was as strong as last night, but Decentius did not last nearly so long. When he tried to focus and regain his erection, he failed.
He kissed my neck, then looked at me apologetically. “I believe I need something to eat. May I see you in your rooms later, Antonia?”
I smiled at his formality. “Of course, Decentius, you may see me whenever you like.” I smiled and gave his ass a squeeze.
With a look of regret, Decentius rose from his bed and went to the guardaroba to retrieve a tunic. As I sat up I noticed the clothes we had flung onto the floor in our enthusiasm had been cleared away. Turning from the guardaroba, Decentius held my stola in his hand. I rose and moved to him, kissing him briefly before accepting it. The pulse continued to beat at each renewal of physical contact, addictive. I slipped my stola over my head, only to see Decentius leaving as I bent to retrieve the waist-ties. Not completely unlike other men after all.
Enroute to my room I encountered a slave and ordered him to come with me; Decentius was not the only one who needed something to eat. The man bent his head deferentially making no noise as I ate. He staggered away with a placid grin on his face when I was finished.
I removed my stola and hung it in my own guardaroba then lay thoughtfully on my bed. It would be easy enough to return to the bordello and pled ignorance and forgiveness for Antonius’ actions. What I did not now was how to get there; a three days journey when I could not be out in the sun.
Entranced in my thoughts, I did not notice Antonius enter the room. When I propped my head to look up, he was there, staring at me hungrily. My clothes were on the far side of the room. But then, this was an opportunity; an opportunity to claim Decentius’ servant for my own.
He licked his lips, eyes firmly fixed on the tops of my breasts. “I have something for you, Donna Antonia.” His hand twitched forward; it held a scroll. I stood and took it, watching as Antonius’ eyes moved downward to my loins, watching as his tunic lifted with his erection.
I read the scroll, every working girl must be able to read her own contract, and smiled. “My bordello, now, is it?” Antonius nodded jerkily, his eyes alternating between my breasts and loins. “That is well done indeed, Antonius,” I said stepping toward him. His hands moved to cup my breasts and he let out a groan. “I suppose you would like a reward?”
A grunt of surprise and his eyes jerked upward to my face. “Yes, Donna, a reward.” He squeezed my breasts.
“And what would you have it be?” I asked, stepping backwards to my bed and lying upon it, legs spread. That feral hunger I had seen in Antonius before was now written on his face and in his jutting erection.
“You! You!” he screamed it, tearing off his clothes and moving at me with a predator’s speed. He pierced me at once, not bothering with kisses, and began to thrust rapidly. His eyes were on my face and I knew what he wanted.
I coiled my legs around his ass, pushing against his every thrust. There was a dull throb where our bodies met but it was nothing like the pulse that sex with Decentius had induced. I arched into Antonius, rolling my eyes in false pleasure. “Oh, Antonius, oh!” He grinned in victory as I moaned his name. It took only a moment longer, and then he finished.
“Oh, Donna, Donna Antonia, you are as Aphrodite, goddess to be served!” he muttered as he withdrew.
I trailed an finger down his torso and gave his limp phallus a tight squeeze. “Serve me well, and you may be rewarded again, Antonius.” He licked his lips and grinned. “But now, you had best return to your master and tell him of what you accomplished in Siracusae.”
Propped on my elbows, I watched Antonius back out of my room, his eyes on my breasts. I wondered if Decentius would want to celebrate tonight? After that, I needed some good sex.
It had not taken me long to find a slave and send for Cloelie. I enjoyed her presence, and she enjoyed being selected.
When I returned to my room Antonia had gone, but the smell of her, and I, and our sex remained. I allowed myself a smile, now that no one was here to see. Of course, knowing Antonia’s profession, I had expected sex with her to be enjoyable, but her face had spoken of the same demanding hunger I felt each time I touched her. I would have to be careful.
I had warned her, though, with mention of Poena’s wrath; still it would not do to trust her too far. Even Antonius, bound as he was to me by blood, had proven unreliable.
The door swung open and Antonius entered, without a knock and with a large smirk on his face. I stepped toward him, the smell of Antonia filling my nostrils. I stared at him levelly, and waited for his response.
“I have returned, Dio,” he replied, sketching a small bow, “and I have news of Siracusae.” I kept my astonishment from my face; had the Fates brought me good fortune for once? Or was Antonius bluffing? He was scanning my face intently; I made certain he read nothing there.
“I secured the bordello for Donna Antonia,” he continued, gaze now partially lowered. I merely raised a brow in inquiry. His eyes flicked between my face and his feet. “She sent me there to retrieve her things but I had an inspiration.” His chin rose; the smirk had reappeared. “I gave that puttana Euphemia her reward for a lifetime of service.” Antonius spat the last word, disgust contorting his face.
“Reward?” I asked.
“I fucked her to death.” He grinned like the famed hyenas. I pressed his mind, and saw a vision of a naked woman bent backward across a table, a knife plunged into her breast. I felt Antonius’ climax, and his satisfaction at her death. My eyes widened; it appeared I had underestimated him.
I shook my head to clear the image. Antonius was so enrapt in his memories he did not notice me until I stepped closer, fingers tapping together. “So, where is the proof of this action? Do you really expect them to hold it for her out of fear of you?”
Antonius chuckled. “No, Dio, I do not. Euphemia signed a paper before she died. I have given it to Donna Antonia.” And the reason I had smelled Antonia’s scent as I approached him became clear; he had taken her the papers and gotten his reward, the only reward she had to give: sex. I wondered if she had enjoyed it. From the way Antonius licked his lips at Antonia’s name, he had.
“So, you took it upon yourself to do this? Without consultation? Just as you took it upon yourself to steal from me?” I thrust my arm in his face. The scar had healed, but I saw him glance downward to look for it. “Tell me, why should I keep such an impetuous servanti?” I stared expectantly at him. He did not need to know that his actions had fallen precisely into my plan.
Antonius’ eyes flicked, searching for a response to ease my wrath. I let a cold smile slide across my face as I watched his cockiness fade. “Did you think you could take from me and I would not notice? Or perhaps you thought Antonia would protect you?” I caressed her name as I spoke it and watched Antonius fight his impulse to attack.
Quivering, Antonius stared straight ahead. “I… apologize, Dio. I have learned my lesson; I shall behave properly hereafter.”
He hadn’t, of course, but he would. Antonius was like a colt, high spirited and wild. He needed to be broken. “You will take these sheets to be washed,” I said, gesturing to the bed. I wondered if he would notice Antonia’s scent on them. “And when you are done your task, then you may have your meal.”
He bowed in acquiescence, and began to strip the linens from the bed. I saw him grimace when he spotted the mingled fluids Antonia and I had left upon them, but he said nothing.
There was a soft knock at my door, and Cloelie’s voice floated through. “Dio? You called for me?” I gestured for Antonius to open the door. He glared, then threw the linens in a heap on the floor. He moved to the door, opening it with a grimace and staring past Cloelie as she entered carrying her lamp. The moment she passed the door and stepped toward me, Antonius snatched the linens, storming out and slamming the door behind him. I heard his footsteps thud down the hall.
Cloelie stepped toward me, resolute yet trembling, green eyes wide, knowing full well why she had been summoned. She stopped in front of me, placing her lamp on the floor, and tipped her head to the side, her dark ringlets falling down her back. An image of Zoie, ringlets bouncing as she ran, threatened to overwhelm me, so I bit; the taste of Cloelie’s warm blood washed all memories away: copper and salt, youth and pride, enthusiasm and patience. Such a beautiful and complex girl.
I lifted my head from Cloelie’s neck, looking down at her. Her head rose but she staggered into my arms. I held her for a moment, appreciating her warmth and the look of gratitude she shone upon me. “Cloelie, my girl, would you like to do me a favour?”
She blinked, “What would you have of me, Dio?” I felt her tremble in my arms.
“Nothing to onerous,” I smiled. “Donna Antonia will be leaving for Siracusae in a few days. She will need someone to assist her. And I will need someone to tell me what she is doing.” Cloelie let out a gasp, and pushed against me. I stared at her until she had regained control. “Can you do it, Cloelie? I would appreciate it very much.” An errant curl slipped forward over her shoulder; I wrapped it around my finger.
Cloelie stood, staring up at me. “But… what about Antonius? Surely he should serve you in such matters?” She was biting her lip in a most childlike fashion, not wanting to admit her discomfort.
I grunted at the mention of Antonius’ name. “He should,” I replied, “but I shall need him for other business. And I suspect Donna Antonia would prefer the assistance of another woman.” I smiled, toying with her curl.
Cloelie nodded. “Yes, Dio. If you wish me to assist Donna Antonia, I shall.” Her green eyes were squarely on mine. “And I shall tell you what she does.” She looked concerned for a moment. “But how?”
“Come.” Cloelie bent to retrieve her lamp as I gestured toward the door. “I shall show you.”
I held open the door for Cloelie, my eyes squinting against the light. I knew she would be loathe to leave it behind, but it was as though its rays scorched my skin. “Cloelie,” I ventured, once we had gained the hall, “would you please dampen the light?”
Cloelie started, then dropped a second layer over the lid of her lamp. “So sorry, Dio. I forgot.” Her head hung as she shuffled along.
With a stride I reached her side and lifted her head. “Do not hang your head so, my girl. I shall be deprived the sight of your pretty eyes.” She blushed and giggled, but walked on with her head high.
Now that I was ahead of her, and the light muted, I no longer needed to squint. I heard her feet tap the tiles behind me as I led the way through the villa to our destination. When we began walking out toward the stables, I heard Cloelie’s footsteps falter, uncertain. Turning a smile on her, I gestured onward but to the left. A small building was situated just outside the servants’ quarters. I could hear the chirps and squawks echoing from it even now.
I waited outside the door until she caught up. “Go on,” I said gently, “they will not hurt you.” Cloelie looked uncertain but opened the door and headed through, lamp first. I heard her gasp, and the rattle of her lamp, as she dodged the fluttering wings. Darting in behind her, I shut the door before any could escape. “Pigeons,” I replied to her incredulous expression. “Signore Umbrae trained them to take messages. Fortunately his training was … different than the usual. They will always return here from where they are sent.” I scanned the motley collection of birds, my eyes lighting on one who flit between its perch and the door. “Eager for adventure, hmm?” I put my hand toward the bird, pushing with my mind as I did so it. It calmed and hopped upon my hand. “Now let us find you a cage; you are about to make a long journey.” The bird shuffled up my arm and perched on my shoulder as I moved toward the far side of the aviary. There was a small assortment of cages, meant only for long journeys by trusted servants; though I doubted whether Signore Umbrae had told anyone other than myself, and perhaps Theophilus, the precise nature of the birds.
I picked a simple cage, twigs with golden hinges and perch, and a bell that hung from its apex. When I returned with it to Cloelie, she clasped her hand to her bosom in delight. “Oh, Dio! For me?” She smiled as the pigeon shuffled its way down my arm and fluttered across to the golden perch inside. “Thank you,” she said reaching out. Then she stopped, looking perplexedly between the cage and her lamp.
I smiled. “I shall carry it to your rooms for you, my girl, yes?”
She nodded fervently and moved toward the door. As we walked back through the night air she turned to me. “Donna Antonia won’t mind, will she?” Cloelie was chewing her lip again in that delightful childish manner.
“I shall make certain she does not,” I replied. “You simply worry about preparing yourself for the journey.” Cloelie nodded, looking relieved.
When we stopped outside the servants’ quarters she took the cage from me and, blushing, planted a soft kiss on my cheek. “Thank you for the kind gift, Dio,” she mumbled before scooting into her quarters. I stood for several moments, hand hovering over the spot she had kissed, memories threatening. Then I turned to deal with Antonia.
I opened the door to her quarters to find her sprawled, naked, on her bed. She was staring at the canopy and twisting a dark scarf in her hands. She turned her head toward me as I entered; I saw the rise of her breasts jiggle with the movement. “Well,” she said, extending a hand toward me, “that took you long enough. I’ve been waiting.” She grinned and licked her lips, the scarf trailing down her torso from neck to loins.
At the sight of her loins, the pulse began to beat in my own once more. All thoughts of bird cages and political positioning left my mind; there was only one position I wanted I right now. Between the door and Antonia’s bed I divested myself of my tunic and undergarments. She smiled as I swung onto the bed, and spread her legs. As I thrust into her, she rolled her head back, eyes closed and mouth open. The pulse began and I fell upon her.
Her scarf ran softly up my back, her nails sharply down. She repeated the motion with each thrust until, head bent back, her nails bit into my shoulders and the scarf lay limp on the bed beside us.
As I rolled off to lay beside her, Antonia appeared perplexed. She scratched a nail down my torso toward my not limp phallus, chuckling. “Are we done so soon?” she purred.
I lifted her hand from my torso and kissed it. “Hardly, Antonia. But I have something I wished to discuss with you before we get too distracted.” She grinned, and stroked my cheek with her captured hand. “Antonius has told you what he did in Siracusae.” It was not a question, but she nodded nonetheless. “And did you enjoy his reward as much as he did?”
Antonia let out a loud laugh. “Told you already, did he? Silly boy, doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.” She sniggered at the thought. “And no, but you already knew that,” she replied, tapping my chest with her nail.
I nodded in assent. “Cloelie will go with you to Siracusae.” Antonia’s eyes widened momentarily, but she did not reply. “I have given her one of Signore Umbrae’s birds. You can use it to inform me when you have made contact with a Roman.”
“Fine,” Antonia said, picking up her scarf and tossing it over my shoulders, “are we done with the business for now?” Her violet eyes flashed, and a smirk played around her lips. There were many details that could be gone over, but I knew she would have none of that until she’d had her fun.
“For now,” I smiled, leaning back and pulling on her scarf. Antonia rose above me and slid, slowly onto my phallus, licking her lips with each fingerspan.
We were well into it, both of us calling out loudly to Eros, when I heard the door creak. Antonia’s head was flung back, her eyes closed. “Oh, Decentius!” she screamed, then fell on my mouth, tongue thrusting. As I returned her thrusts the door slammed.
Antonia lifted her head and looked around, though her pelvis continued in it’s frantic pace. “What was that?” she asked after a moment.
I grabbed her ass with both hands, squeezing. She turned back to me, lascivious. I traced a nail up her spine, then pulled her mouth to mine. “Only the wind, my love,” I said, knowing the truth.
Her tongue found mine and we continued with our pleasure.
We did not spend the entire night naked and lustful, as we had the night before. There were no sounds of footfalls in the corridors to stop us this time, only our own awareness of other things to be done.
Claudia rolled off me and sprawled on the bed, fingers caressing my torso and cheek. I stroked her nearest breast. “I suppose I had best look over what Antonius brought back. Make sure he didn’t damage anything,” she muttered, not moving.
I sat up and stretched. “Would you prefer I do it for you, Donna?” I asked, smiling.
“No, you rascal. You just want to look through my belongings for secrets!” She propped herself on her elbows, breasts dangling. “I shan’t make it that easy for you, Dio,” she chuckled, rolling off the bed. I watched her buttocks sway as she walked to her guardaroba, then rolled off the bed myself to retrieve my tunic.
I pulled it over my head, and saw Antonia watching me with a smirk on her face, already dressed. Apparently she could dress as quickly as she undressed. “Until tomorrow, Decentius,” she said, waving. I bowed in her direction and exited. I could hear her chortle as the door closed behind me.
As I passed a window en-route to my quarters, I saw the moon at its height. Antonius would get his lesson tonight, waiting or not. He was.
I swung open the door to my quarters and was hit on the jaw by a fist. The shock of it caused me to step back, and the door swung shut echoing loudly. “Hello Antonius,” I said when I had regained my footing. “Did you not enjoy the night’s first lesson?” I did not, quite, grin.
Antonius growled and swung his fists once more. I stepped agilely to side, his swings catching only air. Lacking surprise to aid him, he was unable to land a single blow. Growing more furious, he charged. I stretched out my hand, and he ran headlong into it, rebounding and tripping over his own feet.
I stood over his glaring puddle. “Did I not tell you to control your anger? Attacking me will accomplish nothing. You cannot win. And you would not like it if you did.” I turned my back on him and stepped toward my desk. When I heard Antonius beginning to rise, I faced him. “Or have you forgotten where you get your power?”
Antonius returned my glare, fists clenched, but did not move toward me. “You need me, Dio. How else will you get anything done? No one keeps your hours.”
I cocked my head, staring at Antonius. “’No one?’ Are you certain of that servanti? What about your precious Donna Antonia? Or Signore Umbrae? Are you so dense as to think there are no others?” Antonius flinched at the mention of Antonia’s name, his arrogance deflating.
“You can have her,” he muttered, hands unclenched.
I stepped toward him, close enough to see his muddy eyes. “I have.” He jerked toward me, his nose nearly touching mine, and spat. My laugh rang throughout the room causing Antonius to step back in fright. I wiped his spit from my face, slapping him soundly across the jaw with the back of my spit covered hand. He stumbled backward, clutching the post of my bed so he did not fall. “Do you think because you have had her, she is yours? You are a toy to her. A servant to be used for her amusement. Fall at her feet in abasement if you wish; it will gain you nothing. Neither her desire, nor the power you seek.”
He blinked up at me, anger and curiosity fighting for dominance. “She desires me,” he growled. “She wanted me!”
I stared at Antonius, not raising my voice. “Really? Are you certain? She is a prostitute, Antonius. She knows what you desire and exactly how to give it to you. Think, servanti. What have you to give her? Her old job back? Had she wanted that, she would have been there, not here.”
Antonius eyes widened. “Then she pretended with you as well. All she wants is for us to worship her!” He turned and strode toward the door. With a swift movement, I blocked his way.
“Of course she pretended. She likely knew you were there and wanted us to fight. If we are at each other’s throats, she gains power. That is all any of this is about.” I stood in front of Antonius, and probed his mind, wondering if he would detect the lie. He did not. There was something about prostitutes there; a feeling of complete disgust. Yet Antonia did not provoke this reaction, there was lust, and now, anger.
A feral half-smile grew on Antonius’ face. “Then perhaps she will give me power once you are tossed aside.” And he threw me toward the door.
I know what Antonius expected to happen. He had used his enhanced strength to throw me; he expected me to crash into the door and crumple to the ground in a bloody heap. I did not.
As I flew through the air toward the door, I became shadow. The shock on Antonius’ face as I appeared to dissolve into thin air moments before hitting the door was delightful. He had not brought a lamp; though his vision was not as enhanced as my own, it was enough for most purposes. But for the purpose of separating my shadow from the rest, it did not suffice.
I spread out, shadow encompassing more than mere man ever could. I hovered near Antoius’ feet. Somehow he sensed me; he began to stamp rapidly on the floor. If I had had my vocal cords, I would have laughed; instead I just puffed up, following the contours of Antonius’ shape, surrounding him. I could sense his fear and anger, and sense him fighting the fear to let the anger grow. He was a fine tool, but he would have to be honed and aimed properly.
I pulled my shadow in around Antonius, tightening. He pushed against me, relying, as always, on his strength. Tonight he would learn quickly; there are things brute strength is no use against. His mind beat against me, screaming and growling, as my shadow grew heavy and filled his mouth and nose. A bolt of terror streaked across his mind as Antonius tried and failed to draw breath.
One failed breath, two failed breaths, three failed breaths and he was unconscious. I felt fight in his mind flicker and die; I let Antonius go and he fell to the floor with a thud. I took a moment, the merest second, to relax in appreciation of my Shadow. Then I pulled myself together and re-emerged. Antonius would not stay unconscious long, especially with his enhanced physique.
I had just pulled the chair out my desk and turned it toward Antonius, when I heard him stir. I was sitting, regarding him calmly, by the time he looked up at me. “So,” I said, “what have you learned?”
Antonius took a deep breath then, with a single push, leapt up from where he lay and sprang to his feet in front of my chair. “That it’s harder for me to grab shadows than it is for them to grab me.”
I chuckled. “True. You cannot grab Shadows; your body will not harm them.”
“Then what will?” Antonius retorted, a canny light in his eye.
I grinned. “I am hardly so foolish as to answer that question.” Standing, I swung my arm in front of Antonius, the wrist that he had once carved stopping a hand span from his mouth. “I believe you have not yet eaten today. Do so, and we will have another lesson.”
I had not scratched my wrist, there was not a drop of blood to be had, yet Antonius grabbed my wrist like a dog with a bone. He took a knife from his belt, likely the same one he had used before, and nicked it. Then he drank. When my head began to feel woozy, I shook my wrist. Antonius did not let go. “Antonius,” I growled, “stop.” He did.
He stood and licked the blood from his lips, wiping away the last of it with the back of his hand. “What now, Dio?”
I put my hand to my head to ease the throbbing. I was tempted to recall Cloelie, to regain what I had lost, but I dared show no weakness in front of Antonius. It did not matter that I was certain he could not defeat me; if he perceived weakness, he would try, and I would have the tedious responsibility of showing him the error of his ways. “You are proficient in your ability to draw strength from the blood I have given you. Is there any other ability you have attempted to enhance with it?”
A lascivious grin spread across Antonius’ face. “You mean like..,” he thrust his pelvis forward, “with Donna Antonia?”
I closed my eyes, shuddering. Now I knew what he would attempt when next he was out of my sight. “No,” I replied, “that is not at all what I meant. You have enhanced your strength, your might. What else might you improve upon?” I stood, silent, waiting as he thought. I did not expect him to be quick-witted.
He was not. Antonius stared into the air around him for a prolonged period; finally, he blinked and looked at me. “Speed, Dio. I am stronger than all, and have great endurance. Speed would complete my physical prowess.” He eyed me in a remarkably astute manner. “And you have already demonstrated that such speed is possible. Speed such that your opponent cannot land a single blow.” Antonius smiled his feral smile.
I had. Of course, I had demonstrated other things as well, but they were of no interest to Antonius. In a way, I was glad. It would not do to allow him too much power. I nodded to Antonius. “I shall attempt to strike you, you shall attempt to dodge. Remember to draw speed only when you need it, or you will use up the power of the blood too fast.”
Antonius nodded, but his eyes were fixed on my hands; I was not certain he had heard my warning. I was even less certain he would heed it. I swung at Antonius’ head; he dodged. Neither of us used any enhancement; he was simply watching my movements and evading me. I swung again, and continued swinging, left and right, moving closer, forcing Antonius to move, forcing him to watch more than my hands. His dodges became a blur as he increased his velocity. I did not bother with it myself, simply swinging punches until one finally connected with his ear.
Antonius paused, head spinning, arms out, trying to regain his footing. “You cheated!” he growled. “You sped yourself up!”
I grinned, and watched Antonius’ face grow hard as the implication set in. “It does not matter how powerful you are, servanti,” I said plainly, “I shall always be greater.”
Antonius’ lesson continued until the early hours before dawn. When I dismissed him, I told him to bring first Cloelie, then Theophilus to me the following evening.
The next evening I awoke to the scent of darkness and salt with a hint of mortal sweat. As I sat up, I saw Cloelie hunched at the foot of my bed. She was hugging herself and glancing toward the door. My slow, silent movements did not disturb whatever reverie held her until I placed my hand on her shoulder.
“What troubles you, dear girl?” I whispered.
She started, pulling both away from me even as she leaned in for comfort, as though torn by some internal desire. “D...Dio,” she stammered, “I did not know you were already awake. Here.” In her anxiety she pulled down the collar of her stola so quickly she scratched herself. Droplets of blood rose on her neck. With a strength of self-control I had not known I possessed, I smiled, offered Cloelie my hand, and bade her sit.
Blinking, she did so. “Is there something I have done to offend you, Dio? Antonius,” she shuddered at his name, “summoned me here for you to feast on waking.”
I stroked her arm, and slowly her shudders faded. “Antonius bothers you, does he? I do not need to send him for you, if it displeases you.” She would not meet my eyes this night, and constantly glanced at the door. I did not need to touch her mind to know it was Antonius’ return she feared. “Would you rather I sought you out myself, Cloelie? It is no hardship.”
She tensed, as though caught, and shook her head violently. “It is nothing, Dio, nothing. I will deal with Antonius myself.” At this last she set her jaw resolutely and stared up into my eyes.
“Good, child, that is always the best way.” She smiled at my reply. I ran my finger along the line of scratches, lowering her collar. She closed her eyes and tilted her head.
When I had finished, she shuddered and pulled her collar up to cover the marks. I watched, perplexed, as she trod from the room her head high. I wanted to ask her what it was, but she was a slave and I could not appear too interested. Not yet.
As I donned a fresh tunic, there was a solid knock on my door. Theophilus, I thought; Antonius would never be so formal. “Enter,” I said.
The door swung inward and Theophilus strode in while Antonius scrambled in his wake. I did not mind having a servanti others were likely to underestimate, but still, some decorum was required. Theophilus stopped precisely two arm lengths in front of me and dipped his head. “You called for me, Dio.” His jaw was set, his eyes confrontational.
“I did,” I replied. “The courier to Messana, has he returned?” I hated having to ask; I would have to find some way to mingle with the slaves more. I needed to know they were mine, not Theophilus’.
Theophilus inclined his head in assent. “He has, Dio. He returned this afternoon. Would you like me to wake him and have him give you his report?” The evenness of Theophilus’ gaze bothered me; I could not tell if he were hiding something, or merely that secure in his place.
“I would,” I replied.
Theophilus bowed and exited the room. I turned my gaze to Antonius. “What do you know of him, of Theophilus?”
Antonius’ lip curled. “That he is arrogant and bossy. He believes everyone should report to him, and they do.”
“Except you,” I stated.
Antonius nodded, then grudging admitted, “And that girl, Cloelie. She is either waiting for you or Donna Antonia. She was closeted with Donna Antonia earlier; I had to drag her away to get here in time for you.”
That must have been why Cloelie was distressed. I did not share my thought with Antonius; I doubted his response would be sympathetic. “So, it seems I shall have to rely on you and Cloelie to inform me of anything maggiordomo Theophilus deems unworthy of my attention.”
Antonius grinned. I could see the possibilities opening in his mind. I hoped Cloelie would be amicable to the suggestion as well.
The formal knock sounded once again, announcing Theophilus’ return. I raised a brow at Antonius and he moved to open the door. In walked the youth Theophilus had been talking to when Antonia and I encountered him in the barn. The boy looked tired and apprehensive; I wondered what Theophilus had been telling the slaves about me.
“Good evening, Dio,” the boy stuttered. “The maggiordomo said you wanted to speak with me?”
Theophilus entered after the boy, and stopped behind him. Theophilus did not look at the boy; instead he focused on my face holding his own neutral.
“I did,” I replied, watching Theophilus in the edge of my vision. “Tell of what happened in Messana.” I stared at the boy, watching as he twitched and fidgeted, seeing a flash of a smile on Theophilus’ face when the boy turned toward him as if seeking permission to speak.
The boy fidgeted as he responded, “I delivered the grain, Dio. The Greeks took it and left. umm, they gave me the money, and I returned here.” I stared into his mind. Was it simple nerves? I could feel vibration that was his nervousness, and see the edge of his memory; it rippled. The boy’s face blurred in front of me as I pushed to touch the memory. The memory felt rough, like a scythe patched together by an apprentice. I didn’t bother to look further. As I drew out of the boy’s mind I saw Theophilus’ eyes on me awaiting my reaction.
I turned to him and smiled, watching him blanch as the corners of my mouth rose. For the boy, I my smile was genuine. “Thank you for your assistance…” I paused, I did not know his name. “Your name?”
Eyes fixed firmly on his twisting hands, he muttered, “Nikolaos, Dio.”
I nodded. “Thank you for your assistance, Nikolaos. I shall call on you again tomorrow eve for more.” Nikolaos jerked a bow in my direction and skittered out the door.
As the door banged shut, I turned to Theophilus. Antonius grinned. I chuckled deep in my throat. “Such shoddy work, Theophilus. One would almost think you wanted to be caught.”
Theophilus shuddered. “Hold him,” I said to Antonius. He streaked toward Theophilus and pulled back the maggiordomo’s arms. Theophilus did not bother to struggle; he was saving his energy for other things. “Now, tell me what the boy really told you.” I stared straight at Theophilus and touched the surface of his mind. I did not need to read it, only to know whether what he said was true.
Theophilus stared straight at me as he responded, waves of tension coming with each breath. “He met the Greeks, they took the grain, he took the money and he returned.” No ripples of untruth, but Theophilus was so tense Antonius could have snapped him like a twig.
“What are you failing to tell me?” He was not lying; Theophilus was simply not mentioning whatever it was he did not want me to know. I stared at him waiting for the tension to break. Instead, after several moments, Theophilus began to relax. His arrogant smile returned. “Do you think I will not hurt you simply because I have yet to do it?” I grinned, and glanced at Antonius.
There were a great many things Antonius lacked the necessary subtlety for, but knowing when violence was required was not one of them. He pulled the maggiordomo’s arms further; I heard the pop as they left their sockets. Theophilus kept himself controlled, a slight twinge of his eye was the only evidence of pain. “If you kill me, how will you learn what you need to know?” Theophilus hissed through clenched teeth.
“I do not need to kill you. I simply need to break your concentration; then I will tear it all from your mind. Unless you tell me willingly.” I did not allow my expression to shift as Antonius continued to pull Theophilus’ arms back. If Theophilus did not answer soon he would be missing an arm.
Theophilus jerked forward, his arms stretching to an unnatural length. “Fine.”
I nodded to Antonius to let him go. A petulant expression crossed Antonius’ face, and he snorted. Theophilus turned, backing away from the sound. After eyeing Antonius long enough to be certain he intended no further imminent harm, Theophilus rolled his shoulders backwards, shrugging slightly; I heard the pop as they re-entered their sockets. It was a good thing Antonius was standing behind the maggiordomo; his eyes nearly left their sockets as he stared at the amazing feat.
Theophilus stretched his neck and shoulders checking everything, before he spoke. “I have the money from the Greeks. I will return it to you forthwith,” he growled. His thoughts rang true. “They are returning in four days time for further trade and said they would like to speak with Nikolaos’ master. I had intended to go myself,” he glared, “but obviously that can be changed.”
“Obviously,” I replied. “Tell me, how is it you and your master travelled such distances safely in the past?” I saw his eyes flicker as Theophilus tried to think of a half-truth that would satisfy my question.
Theophilus sighed. “There is a special carriage. The seat is larger and opens on top. It is well lined and seals shut. My master slept inside while I drove.” The words were nearly spat, as though he hated himself for saying them.
“Thank you,” I replied graciously. “You will show it to Antonius. I will inspect it tomorrow. Now,” I grinned, “I have other business to attend to.”
Antonius’ eyes flashed; he knew what other business I referred to and did not like being sent off with the maggiordomo while I cavorted with Antonia. I did not allow my grin to fade until after he had stomped out the door in the maggiordomo’s wake.
I decide to wander the villa and not go directly to Antonia’s room. Not out of any desire for subterfuge, for the slaves would know the truth regardless of any attempts by myself to conceal it, but to see what reactions my presence provoked in those still awake. I walked the halls a moment, then paused, listening to sounds around me. There was a noise from the direction of the kitchen, so I headed toward it.
I had not visited the kitchen in my time at the villa; there was no obvious need. Any hunger I had would not be satisfied by its contents, no matter how well stocked. And then there was the smell. Before, in that other life I tried my best not to dwell on, I had enjoyed the smell of cooking, of food. I had even helped on occasion, much to Lethe’s amusement. Those memories pushed at me as I smelt the aroma of olive oil and chicken simmering. The aroma, which had once been warm and welcoming, now smelt putrid and maligned.
I paused outside the door, listening to the sounds within and pushing the past back where it belonged. I heard the clacking of knives on wood, and the muttering of two voices, one high pitched, one low. Prepared, I pushed the door inward, eyes focused beyond it not wanting to miss the first reactions of those inside.
The door swung inward with a low creak, and two dark heads turned toward me. Their eyes grew wide, and the one wielding the knife, the woman, dropped it clattering to the floor. Her partner bent quickly to retrieve it, and when he stood the knuckles gripping the knife were white and it was pointed directly at me.
That was a clear enough answer.
I smiled, doing my best to make it one of warmth, not hidden malice. They eyed one another briefly, confused. “Hello,” I said, “I am Dio Decentius. It has recently come to my attention that I had failed to introduce myself to the staff. I thought I should resolve this discrepancy.” I inclined my head briefly in their direction but made certain to keep a watchful eye on the knife.
The knife rattled in the man’s hand; he took a deep, steadying breath and laid it down on the table. Then he wiped his hand repeatedly on his spattered tunic, and gave me a long bow. “G..good evening, Dio Decentius. I am Kyrios and this,” his hand jerked toward the woman, “is my wife, Charis.”
Charis sketched a curtsey, holding the edges of her dull stola with wrinkled hands. “Good evening, Dio,” she said much more smoothly than her husband.
“Good evening, Charis, Kyrios,” I replied. “Tell me, what is it you do that keeps you up so late?” I found I was actually curious, there was no one eating mortal repast at this hour.
Charis bowed again before she spoke; it seemed she was the brave one of the pair. “We wouldn’t normally be, Dio, but Maggiordomo Theophilus informed us there would be special visitors from Greece coming tomorrow and we had best prepare something for their arrival.” There was not a trace of deception in her face, not a bit of tension that spoke of internal conflict. Her husband, however, quivered as he smiled at me.
I turned to him, touching his mind lightly as I asked, “Is there something in your wife’s words that distresses you, Kyrios?” My smile was gone, though I did my best not to glare he took a step away from me.
Kyrios flicked his gaze between his wife, myself, and the knife he had abandoned. “Well, Dio, it’s just… the maggiordomo told me not to tell you. That you did not want to be bothered with such minutiae.” There was truth in his mind, and fear. Fear for his very life. Fear that bore my face.
“And what did the maggiordomo suggest I would do if… bothered by minutiae?” I stared at Kyrios, aware vaguely of the astonished look on Charis’ face as she gazed at her husband.
“He did not say specifically, Dio.” Kyrios swallowed and lifted his eyes to mine with great force of will. “But the implication was… unpleasant.”
Charis looked appalled at her husband’s statements. “Why should that matter? And why should the maggiordomo say what Dio Decentius may know? It is he who is in charge while the Signore sleeps.”
I watched as Kyrios turned to his wife. “Are you certain? Dio Decentius just arrived last season. The maggiordomo has been Signore Unbrae’s trusted servant since before we arrived.” Kyrios blanched, and remembered my presence. “Meaning no disrespect, Dio,” he muttered before attempting to hide behind his wife.
I smiled, pushing my fury at Theophilus’ actions as far from my face as possible. “You did as you were told, Kyrios, by one whom you have always trusted. It is not your fault that he was wrong.”
My words sank into Kyrios’ mind. He began to calm, to re-evaluate what Theophilus had said. With a touch to his mind, I encouraged this. “So, you aren’t angry, Dio?”
I shook my head. “No, Kyrios, you have done nothing wrong. But next time, I would like to know when we are to have important guests so that I may assure they are greeted properly.” Kyrios nodded his acquiescence. I pushed my smile further up my face, and nodded to him and his wife. Then I left the kitchen.
I was angry, but I needed the slaves on my side. Theophilus would be the one to feel my wrath. Well, I grinned thinking of Antonia waiting for me, he and Antonia. There was more than one way to work through anger.
A few hours later Antonia was perched above me as I stroked her nipples. “So, he hadn’t bothered to tell you the Greeks were coming when all the slaves, except Antonius, of course, new?” She chuckled at Theophilus’ shortsightedness as she bobbed above me. “Are you sure he didn’t want you to find out? We know he likes trying to manipulate you.”
“Yes,” I said, not wholly in response to Antonia’s question, as her movement increased. “He would not have wasted the blood energy keeping it from me otherwise.”
Antonia shrugged in response as her mouth fell on mine. The pulse abated if we kept our minds occupied, but not for long.
After two more interludes, she lay beside me head propped on her hand. “Do be careful, Decentius. I far prefer dealing with you to that stuffy Theophilus.” Her smile was both wicked and inviting. “I’d hate to see something happen because you underestimated him.”
I chuckled as I disentangled myself from her sheets. “Yes, I’m certain you would.” I found my tunic and donned it. “Send Cloelie to me should she visit you.” Antonia nodded.
Returning to my room, I encountered several slaves up before dawn to being their chores. I smiled in my friendliest fashion as I passed them. Some smiled back, but most merely looked perplexed.
When I pushed open the door to my room, I found Antonius awaiting me. “I saw the cart,” he blurt. “It worked like he said, kept all the light out.” He was sitting on my bed and made no move to rise as I approached.
“You are certain?”
“Yes,” he snorted. “I stuck a candle in it; no light came out.” My brows rose in skepticism. “Didn’t think I had it in me, Dio?” He rose, smiling his feral smile, and stood in front of me. “I know where my power comes from. I’m not letting him kill you.”
Yet. The word hung unspoken in the space between his smile and my answering grin. I nodded in understanding. “Would you be able to replicate it? With appropriate assistance?” Antonius stared at me in confusion. “There are two of us,” I said slowly, “myself and Antonia. There would be a benefit to having sufficient transportation.”
Antonius’ eyes widened in understanding, then shrugged. “What assistance? Theophilus has them all convinced he’s in charge.”
“No,” I replied, “he does not. Talk with Kyrios and his wife, Charis. Politely. Pleasantly.” I stared at Antonius until he nodded his agreement. “They will also inform you of some Greek visitors due to arrive today. Visitors Theophilus did not deem important enough to mention.” Antonius ground his teeth, smashing his fist into his palm. “No. Not this time.” He looked annoyed at my response. “You will be there, you will watch, you will not interfere with Theophilus. But you will make certain they do not leave before nightfall.” This garnered Antonius’ grin. “Without harming them.”
Antonius eyes bore into mine for a long moment, his distrust of my plan radiating waves of anger and annoyance. “Yes, Dio,” he spat.
“I know where my aid comes from. You are needed,” I grinned. For now. Antonius chuckled as he met my gaze. He knew what I did not say. I raised a brow and he nodded.
“I will do as you ask, Dio. They will be waiting for you at nightfall.” He bowed and left.
The scent of sunrise wafted through the covered windows. Cloelie was not returning tonight. I wondered if Antonia had given Cloelie my instructions, and then decided it did not matter. I would find out soon enough where loyalties lay.
The next evening I awoke to find Antonius and Cloelie at the foot of my bed. Antonius was relaxing against one bedpost, the edge of his feral grin apparent from where I lay. Cloelie appeared to be trying to hide behind the far post, a task at which she was singularly unsuccessful. Her eyes flit from her knotted hands to Antonius’ reclined position. Another knot to unravel.
I rose, prompting Cloelie to start and move toward me, while Antonius simply leant back and smiled. He was only entitled to his games if they did not interfere with my own, and this one was already problematic.
“Dio,” Cloelie curtsied and offered me her neck. I bent, gazing warningly at Antonius. He was unmoved. When I lifted my lips, Cloelie curtsied once more and moved toward the door. I grasped her elbow and stopped her.
“Cloelie,” I spoke gently, focused solely on her. It left me vulnerable to a sudden move by Antonius, but I need to soothe Cloelie’s agitation. “Please, do not leave yet. I am here if you wish my help. With anything.” I held her green eyes in a lifeline; she nodded, blushing.
“I know, Dio.” Her hand rose to cup my cheek; her eyes were full of moisture and regret. “I know.”
I felt her breath against my lips, and smelled the scent of lemon and mortality. I closed my eyes to push out the images of hope that threatened, and asked, “What did you learn today?”
Her hand slipped from my cheek, but her response was soft and sure. “Theophilus has made many of the slaves afraid of you. They do not see you, they do not know you, so they believe him. He has presented himself to the Greeks as the master of the villa.”
“I have corrected that interpretation,” Antonius tossed casually from his post. I wanted to tear his tongue from his mouth for interrupting but instead raised a brow in inquiry. “Theophilus took them to the stable and bade them on their way. Then he left. I,” Cloelie snorted at this. “Fine then, I, Cloelie, and that Nikolaos fellow detained them. Cloelie guided them to a room to wait for you.” He looked annoyed at having to admit this.
“Thank you,” I said, nodding to Antonius. I cupped Cloelie’s cheek momentarily, “Thank you,” I whispered. She nodded. “Would you do me the kindness of taking me to them?”
Again she nodded, then took my arm and pulled toward the door. With a snarl, Antonius followed.
Cloelie’s arm was warm on mine; I felt her racing pulse through my cold skin. I watched her dark curls bounce as she pulled me along, not with enthusiasm as Zoe once had but with determination, and a perverse desire to be out of Antonius’ vicinity as quickly as she could. We went down one hall I was certain I’d never before entered; I marked its location as an excellent place to find unwary slaves.
I surmised our destination shortly before we arrived; when we entered the final hall Antonia was lounging against a door near its end. She rolled her head upwards to look at me as we approached. “Ready to foil Theophilus’ plans, are we?” she smiled.
With a look Antonia persuaded Cloelie to release my arm, taking it herself. The loss of Cloelie’s warmth startled me, but when Antonia turned an inquisitive look at me I merely smiled. As we stepped toward the door, Antonius shoved it open.
We entered to the startled faces of the two Greek merchants and their slaves. Four dark haired men stared at us. One of the merchants eyed Antonia with a smile; the other flicked his eyes from Antonius to me. They were seated at a small table, food splayed across it, slaves hovering behind casting wary looks at Antonius. One had eaten everything on his plate; the other had barely touched anything.
I raised my chin in greeting, and Antonia curtsied at my side. The two rose and moved toward us, the one who had barely eaten taking the lead. He stuck out his hand towards my own, the one that was not currently entwined around Antonia’s waist. “Buona sera, Dio,” he said. “I am called Yannis and this is my associate, Matthias.” His grin flashed white as he squeezed my hand with unneeded force. “Your slave bade us wait for you in most convincing fashion.” He cast an unworried glance at Antonius.
I eyed Antonius, who merely smiled his feral smile and nodded toward the Greeks.
“Theophilus did not wish us stay,” Yannis continued, “but your slave, and his charming companion,” he spared a lascivious smile for Cloelie, “worked around his wishes. I wonder Theophilus knows we are here?” His hands were on his hips, and he cocked his head, bird-like, but his expression was challenging.
I shrugged my shoulders noncommittally. “Theophilus shall pay attention to his business; I shall pay attention to mine.”
Yannis chuckled and shared a look with his countryman. “Ah, but I think that you wish his business to become yours, yes?”
A wry smile crawled across my face. “You are an astute man, Yannis, but you miss one point. The business Theophilus now claims as his own is mine; it has been so since the Signore became indisposed.”
“And what about when the Signore is no longer indisposed, hmm?” Yannis countered.
I opened my hands in motion of graceful resignation. “When that happens, we shall see where the pieces fall.”
Yannis grinned, chuckling, and slapped me on the back. “As you say, Decentius, we have business to pursue.” He looked around the room. “Sadly, I have no seats to offer you all,” he shrugged.
I heard Cloelie step forward before she crossed into my vision. I raised a hand to stop her. “If you will allow a seat for Donna Antonia?” I inquired. A flash of confusion crossed his face before Yannis bowed and pulled out a chair. Slipping from my arm, Antonia lounged on the chair, the picture of indolence. When her roaming eyes met mine, however, there was nothing lax in their expression. I smiled at Yannis, making sure the corners of my eyes crinkled with sincerity, “Then I am content to stand.”
Yannis slapped my back heartily once again. In my periphery, Antonius’ chest rose with stifled guffaws. Yannis did not move toward the other chair but instead scanned the room looking for someone else to fill it. His eyes lit when they came across Cloelie. “Sit, please, won’t you? We must have our ladies be comfortable.”
Cloelie glanced at me, unsure whether a mere slave should accept such an offer. I dipped my head in reply, and she smiled awkwardly at Yannis before allowing him to lead her to the other chair.
“Now, Decentius,” he said from behind Cloelie’s chair, leaning on its back like an eager falcon waiting to pounce, “what is it you want from me?”
Antonia’s eyes met mine; we both noted the singular pronoun. “I should like to know what trade it is you do with the villa. To be kept informed of the numbers. And to meet your master.” Yanni had nodded agreeably until the word ‘master’. At that he, and only he, blanched. “Soon,” I added.
Matthias moved next to Yanni and began whispering in his ear. “Who is he talking about? Our supplier?” I heard him say before Yanni waved him off with a flick of his hand.
“I can agree to the first two myself, but the latter will require consultation,” Yanni replied. His eyes fixed on my expression.
I nodded. “I would not expect it otherwise. What is it you bring this time?” I said, returning abruptly to the topic of trade.
It did not slow Yanni’s response a beat. “Oil, grapes, seeds, and some fabric gained from further abroad.”
“Seeds?” I said, both surprised and confused. The villa had and abundant supply of wheat for use and trade, a small garden of olives and grapes for the mortal’s repast, and a flock of sheep for wool, meat, and cheese. “What sort of seeds?”
Yanni shrugged, “Olive and grape. Oh, and also some honey.” He affected a casual attitude at this last, but tension ran through his neck and down his arms shaking the chair Cloelie sat in.
“Honey?” I cocked a brow, but did nothing else to betray my surprise. Honey was a rare and expensive delicacy. Why would Theophilus bargain for such a thing? “If it has been ordered, we shall accept it. This time.” I glanced at Antonius; he stepped quickly forward. “In the future you will speak with Antonius if I am unavailable. Theophilus may feel he is in charge, that is fine, but I do not wish you to mistake feeling for reality.”
Yanni nodded, grinning, and released Cloelie’s chair. His assistant Matthias nodded cautiously, likely still unsure as to what, precisely, had transpired. “The goods have been unloaded. Theophilus saw to that, and to the filling of our carts with the grain and wool we had requested.”
I cast an eye at Antonius. “That’s what happened, Dio,” he piped. “They trotted along doing exactly what Theophilus asked them. Until I put a word in their ear, that is.” Antonius’ feral grin was accompanied by a loud cracking; he was flexing his knuckles. This sound echoed through our small room causing whitened faces on all but Antonia and myself.
“Thank you, Antonius,” I replied. “Now, we will talk specifics. What have you been bringing and for how long?”
Yanni and Matthias were most helpful with their recollection of goods they had delivered to villa over the last five years; I hardly needed call on Antonius for his powers of persuasion at all. Antonia managed to prompt their memories on the rare occasions when neither nature nor Antonius sufficed.
It was not until I heard the first birds of morning as I lay on my bed, Antonia sprawled beside me, that I realized I had never told Yanni my name.
I stood at Yanni and Matthias’ wagon before they left the next morning. Yanni had written a complete list of goods and prices for Decentius; at least I presumed that was what it was. I was starting to get sick of all these missives I couldn’t decipher.
Before Yanni left, he slapped me on the back. I think he expected it to startle me, but I scarcely moved. “You and I, Antonius,” he whispered in my ear, “we are of a kind. If ever you need my help, you let me know.” I grunted something, scarcely inclined to offer assistance, servanti or not.
“Just be sure to bring word from your master next time. Decentius is not patient.” Decentius was as patient as the sea, but I wanted to know whom we were really dealing with.
Yanni, hopped into his cart and flicked his horses. He waved a cheery farewell which I forced myself to mimic. Matthias waved too, but I didn’t bother with him.
Once they had disappeared from view, I went to retrieve the cart Theophilus had shown me. It had been kept in a silo far out in the fields, far enough away that no one would have found it if Decentius had not pushed the issue. I didn’t bother with a horse, I just lifted the shafts onto my shoulders and pulled the thing.
Theophilus was standing outside the barn when I returned. He smirked, “Doing the master’s bidding, I see.”
I snorted. “Yes, maggiordomo, I am doing my job,” I spat.
He merely chuckled. “Now, Antonius, there’s no reason for such hostility. Didn’t I let you met the Greeks? Talk to them? Try to persuade them your master was the true Signore of the villa? It is hardly my fault you failed so fantastically.”
I bit my cheek and stared at the ground. I would have laughed aloud, but Decentius would have my head if Theophilus found out what the Greeks had truly agreed to. Whether it were my doing or not; he would have my head. I knew what he would do with Cloelie, what he was doing with Antonia. I kicked the ground.
“No charming response, Antonius?’ Theophilus murmured, deluded into thinking my annoyance was prompted by his petty scheming. “Ah well, perhaps one will occur to you before next we met. You’re off to Siracusae with Donna Antonia tomorrow.”
I glared at him. “Yes, I am. But I won’t be gone long.”
Theophilus shrugged and walked away. I picked up a stone, tossing it up repeatedly, fighting the urge to aim at his retreating form. If Decentius could increase his speed, if I could, surely Theophilus could as well. When I had the advantage, I would strike. Despite Decentius’ mutterings, I did know how to be patient. But only when it mattered to me.
I went back into the villa to retrieve Donna Antonia’s trunk; the same trunks I had delivered to the villa only two days prior. And now I was being sent to deliver them, and Donna Antonia, back to the bordello. Donna Antonia, who preferred the company of Decentius to me.
Swinging open the door to Donna Antonia’s chamber, my eyes fell on Cloelie. Cloelie, Decentius’ little pet, Cloelie who I had been using since I saw Antonia riding Decentius. I had raced from that sight and into Cloelie, as if I Nemesis herself had guided me. If I could not strike at him directly, I use Cloelie. And I did; repeatedly.
Tonight Cloelie was bending over one of the trunks counting out something. I moved silently behind her, grabbed her breasts, and pressed myself against her. She gasped. The smell of fear wafted from her and my erection grew. “Buon giorno, Cloelie,” I growled in her ear.
“Antonius!” she yelped, twisting in my grasp. “Please, not here, not now, not today.” I smelt the salt tang of tears and ground my erection hard into her ass.
“Here, now, today, and everyday.” With one hand splayed across her chest holding her tightly, I used the other the rip away her undergarments; I hadn’t bothered with any myself. I began to push her forward over the chest.
“Please,” she begged, “Donna Antonia will hear you. Then Dio Decentius will be upset.”
“She will hear nothing in her Immortal slumber.” I thrust into her. She was tight. “Scream if you want, I don’t mind.”
Cloelie tossed her head in negation as I began thrusting. My hands moved through opens of her stola to her small breasts, pinching and pulling her nipples. It was this way every time; she started out in denial but through the use of Decentius’ blood I outlasted her and made her scream her pleasure. Tonight, furious as I was with Theophilus, I did not stop when she screamed. Her tears dripped down my arms but I did not stop. She was hoarse, her voice used up in screams and sobs, before I pulled out and stood before her with my wet and glistening erection.
Cloelie looked up at me, eyes pleading, but I growled and she took it in her mouth. She began to suck. She was not skilled, this child. How could she be when she had bleed as I took her not two days ago? But she was learning. Her tongue circled the tip of my phallus, and I began to spurt. “Suck it! Suck it all!” I demanded. She did, lips moving and throat bobbing; she knew the consequences. If she didn’t get it right the first time, I’d make her do it over and over until she did. The power of Decentius’ blood allowed that.
I grinned at the thought of Decentius’ blood defiling this pet of his and grew hard once more. With a smack to the forehead, I separated the girl from my loins and then from her clothes. As she mewled in terror, I hefted her across the room and lay her face down beside Donna Antonia. Cloelie knew who I imagined as used her.
I refused to finish inside her; I removed myself and came all over the sniffling girl’s back.
When I didn’t immediately penetrate her once more, Cloelie turned to look at me, semen glistening white against her back. “May… may I dress now?” Her face was wet but the smell of terror was receding. I didn’t mind; it’d come again soon enough.
My response was a mere shrug, but she scampered across the room, swinging her stola over her head, before returning to the exact stop where I had first grabbed her and continuing her work. “So,” I smiled as her twitched from her work to me, “which can I take out?”
Cloelie pointed from where she sat quivering like a bird who’s just spotted the cat. Her eyes followed me as I sloped to the trunk, swinging it smoothly onto my shoulder; the same shoulder I had hefted her onto earlier. She cringed, drawing back even though I was spans from her. As I trod from the room, I could feel her eyes flick to and fro; needing to watch me but not wanting to admit it even to herself.
When I returned to Donna Antonia’s room, I saw the trunks neatly stacked near the bed but no sign of Cloelie. That was fine; she’d keep herself away from me believing she had freedom. Then we’d have the whole trip together. I’d taste her sweet tears later.
I decided to carry out the trunks in one load; Decentius might object that I was showing off, but it would give me the rest of the day. He was asleep, what could he do about it?
The slaves who saw me stared, slack jawed, as I walked past. I heard some begin to mutter, wondering if I was a powerful being like their master. Good. Theophilus, though, he just stood there with wheat dust all over his legs and glared. He’d never betray his position, that one.
The trunks thudded into the back of the cart, causing the hay to fly off. “Hey!” I turned on the nearest slave, a mere boy who was feeding the horses, “get that hay back in there. Clean it up.” He stared at me, eyes blinking, then looked longingly at the horse. “The horse isn’t going to fuck you, but I might if you don’t get to it,” I growled. The jar he had been holding squelched in the mud as he scrambled over to pick up the hay. Kept his eyes to me the whole, back to the cart as much as he could. Not quite as stupid as he looked, this one.
Once he’d started, obviously cowed by my presence, I decided to go find the kitchen pair who’d been so helpful yesterday; it was too dull to stand here and glare at the boy while he worked. I headed to the kitchen. I wondered if they’d be able to make my something I could actually stomach. The one catch of my abilities was that normal food, food other than Decentius’ blood, tasted awful; bland at best and downright vomit-inducing at worst. We’d see if these cooks were worth their salt.
When I slammed open the door into the kitchen, the slaves all jumped. Then their heads darted around to see who it was. Idiots. Now wonder they were slaves, unchosen for greatness; they could not control their actions any more than a startled rabbit.
I scanned the room, and found Kyrios and Charis; he in the back dissecting a fowl, she with flour head to foot kneading some dough. Where the other slaves’ eyes had darted down, or simply returned to their existing tasks upon realizing who I was, Kyrios’ and Charis’ did not. With a nod of my chin, I summoned them both. “And bring something decent to eat. Something Theophilus might like,” I added as I marched to the other door, the one which exited into the dining hall. Punching the door open, I continued through and sat in the furthest corner.
There were no more than a half dozen slaves sitting and eating. I looked around, and marveled at the general youth and fitness of the group. Certainly it was not abnormal on a farm to have young, healthy slaves but baring the older woman I had seen, and Theophilus, there was not a gray hair among them. That meant only Theophilus was in charge.
Kyrios approached, eyes flicking about the room as he carried a plate of food to someone who seemed nothing more than another slave. He sat across from me, placing the plate and knife on the table in front of himself before sliding it across to me. Not a bad tactic, since despite his obvious nervousness only one young woman was looking at us. I smiled at her, imagining her bent across the trunk, as Cloelie had been earlier. She blanched and turned quickly away. Then the smell hit my nose.
Rising from the plate Kyrios had brought was a smell so succulent I had to lick my lips to keep from drooling like a dog who sees a bone. I did not know the names of the herbs he had used, and when I glanced down I saw that it was merely chicken. Yet this chicken was pink, and the juices running from it bubbled a bloody rose. I stabbed it with the knife and ate.
I felt Kyrios’ eyes on me as I swallowed, waiting like a sheep dog for a kind word. I grunted pleasantly, and he smiled. The chicken blood slid down my throat, adding its power to my body just as Decentius’ blood did. It did not sit in my stomach, hard, knotted and wanting only to spewed back out, as the other food I had eaten since my transformation had.
I reveled in my ability to enjoy food once again, brought back to the moment only when Kyrios looked across the room, smiling and bright eyed; the sure sign of a man in love. I turned my head and nodded at Charis’ approaching form.
Once she had slipped beside her husband, exchanging slobbering kisses as she did so which threatened my stomach’s newly regained equanimity, they turned to me with serious expressions. “So,” she whispered, “what would Dio have of us?”
Decentius had been right in his judgment; these two were not loyal to Theophilus, they understood who the true master of the villa was. “There’s a wagon in the barn ready for travel,” I said, sucking chicken through my teeth. “It needs to be duplicated. Find some slaves who will do it without too many questions and send them to me. Come yourselves, if you wish. Decentius wants it done quickly.”
He hadn’t said it, but he would. I swallowed the rest of my chicken and rose from the table. Asking for Theophilus’ food had been a whim, something that would come back to him as an annoyance. It had turned out remarkably well. Perhaps Decentius wasn’t the only one I needed to study.
Leaving the remnants of my lunch to be dealt with by someone else, I lead Kyrios and Charis out to the stable. The hay had been returned to the chart but the boy was no longer in sight. “Here,” I pointed at the obvious. “This is the cart that needs to be replicated.” Hopping into the back, I lifted the lid of the seat. Kyrios gasped, but Charis merely smiled and nodded. “Be certain to replicate it exactly.” I stared pointedly at Charis, but she merely gave a curt nod.
“We will make certain it is done properly, … Antonius.” She paused, briefly, uncertain what title to afford me. I’d have to make one up.
When Decentius arose that evening, Cloelie and I were waiting in his room. I’d thought about taking her there, bent over and looking helplessly at the recumbent form of her supposed protector, but decided against it; if Decentius awoke early I would not live out the night. Instead, I took my post at the foot of his bed, and lounged against the bedpost while eyeing Cloelie. This time, instead of hiding ineffectively behind her own post, she crossed her arms and glared at me; it didn’t stop the fear wafting off of her.
When his black head lifted from the pillow, I moved swiftly to the guardaroba to grab the evenings clothing. Not that one evening was any different from another; unrelenting black was all he ever wore. I supposed there might be cloaks or such come winter, but nothing of the sort yet.
Once Decentius had slipped the tunic over his slim and sturdy body, I watched as he feed from Cloelie. They gazed into each others eyes with expressions reminiscent of Kyrios and Charis, yet I knew there was no love there. Once their eyes had finished making contact, Cloelie bent her neck and Decentius bit. There was no noise as he feed except the slight gasps from Cloelie. They reminded me of the way she gasped during sex, but with less fear.
When Decentius lifted his lips from Cloelie’s neck, her face was flushed and I could hear her breath from where I stood. She looked momentarily dazed, while Decentius was refreshed and smiling unmercilessly. I wanted to ask from my blood now, let Cloelie see what her sacrifice fed.
“Dio,” I began, before Decentius interrupted me.
“Are the preparations made?” he asked, ignoring my attempt to speak.
“Yes,” I replied, sighing, “and I am sorely in need of energy after my efforts.” Tilting my head downwards, I gazed up at Decentius from weary eyes. He chuckled and pulled up his sleeve.
I watched Cloelie as I stepped forward and raised Decentius’ scratched arm to my mouth. Her face was white, her mouth and eyes wide. There was no fear radiating from her now. As I licked Decentius arm, I drew a deep breath; death and shock. And both would give me power.
Once I had finished, Decentius pulled down the sleeve of his tunic and turned toward the door. I licked the last drops from my lips, my eyes fixed on Cloelie’s.
She broke from her trance and scuttled along behind Decentius; I followed at my own pace, since I already knew where they were headed. It was time to collect Donna Antonia and begin the ride into town.
There were muffled voices behind the door as I approached. I could hear Donna Antonia’s purr and Decentius’ grave reply. Pushing the door open, I saw Decentius with his arm around Antonia’s waist as she licked at his neck. Her eyes met mine and she waggled a finger in my direction. Apparently they wanted to say goodbye, first.
I left. I headed to the cart, striding through the empty halls and listening to echoes of my steps. I enjoyed the way they rebounded, making my approach ominous. They faded as I approached the outdoors. The air swirled around me, it coldness breathing vigor into my limbs, as the round moon bobbed overhead.
There was a light in the barn, and the sound of shuffling. I stood in the shadows and watched Cloelie, Charis, and Kyrios load the last of Donna Antonia’s belongings and a small bundle of food. Cloelie nodded her thanks to the pair, and they trod out, too focused on getting to their beds to notice me in the shadows beside their path.
I moved forward, Cloelie fixed within my line of sight, thinking how I would enjoy this trip. She started, covering her breasts and bending in a near-fetal position. “No,” I heard her mutter. I watched her close her eyes and breathe deeply, breasts rising high. When Cloelie’s eyes opened again, her back was straight, her expression hard.
I wondered how long Decentius and Antonia would be; was there enough time for me to play with Cloelie before they arrived? I stepped forward into the light of the barn.
Cloelie turned, her expression neutral. “Antonius.” She nodded her head briefly in my direction, but there was no welcome in it.
“Cloelie,” I smiled. “It seems we shall be spending a great deal of time together, we two.”
She shuddered and closed her eyes. “Yes, we shall,” she replied through pinched lips. “But,” her eyes opened and she grinned at me, “you shall be without your special gifts,” she spat. “I can bear your mortal depredations without fear.”
I heard myself gasp in surprise. I had failed to retrieve a vial of Decentius’ blood for this journey and, now that he was awake, there was no way to do so. Anger coursed through me as I watched Cloelie’s triumphant smile grow.
With one hand I smashed her back against the cart, her grin destroyed. I hit her, over and over, until her crying pleas reached my ears. “Please, stop, please, I’ll suck you! Please.”
I stopped and stood where I was, in the middle of the cart’s storage area with Antonia’s trunks and Cloelie’s form at my feet. “Then do it,” I growled.
She slid her hands slowly up my thighs. I sniffed for her terror, but there was none. Instead, she smelt of eagerness. Cloelie wanted to please me, and I would let her. As her tongue and hands worked diligently, I allowed my mortal urges to take over. There was no time to make her pay right now, instead she swallowed every drop and had just finished wiping her face when we heard Donna Antonia’s laughter.
They entered the barn arm in arm; a smiling, sappy couple, the scent of their sex wafting before them. Decentius lifted her into the front of the cart, and she bent over to give him a soft kiss. He smiled as he turned from her to pat Cloelie on the head. The women attended to, he extended his hand to me.
“Here,” Decentius said, “I did it myself this time.” In his hand was the same vial I had used to catch his blood previously. The way he raised his brow, and the smile that flickered at the edge of his mouth, said he knew it.
“Thank you, Dio,” I bowed, “you do me a great service.” I saw Cloelie blanch.
“Be certain you save your power for the protection of the ladies,” Decentius intoned.
I smiled, watching Cloelie tremble. “I shall be certain to use it only in their service,” I replied. I thought I heard Antonia chuckle.
“Good,” was Decentius’ flat reply. “ I shall expect to see you before the moon is at half.”
I nodded. Straight there and back was all I would be allowed. “Then we had best leave at once.”
Decentius stepped aside as I swung into the front of the cart and snapped the reigns. We moved into the night with his still form behind us. As he faded from view, I felt Donna Antonia’s hand caress my thigh. “This should be fun,” she chuckled.
It seemed Cloelie was to be inducted into the brothel, and as I was the only available male, Donna Antonia used me as her teaching tool demonstrating techniques of pleasure that taxed my control to it’s extreme. Donna Antonia would demonstrate, amusement and pleasure rippling from her at my response, and then Cloelie would copy, disgust and pleasure rippling from her at my response. It was good Decentius had given me the vial, or I would not have had the energy to protect them from a cat.
Donna Antonia told Cloelie to sleep just as the moon began it’s descent. “You next,” she smiled as Cloelie’s snores drifted on the breeze. I stared at Donna Antonia a moment. I needed rest, but Decentius would not be pleased if he found I had left her to defend herself. Donna Antonia smiled, one corner of her mouth rising. “I can defend myself, Antonius.” Her hand caressed my cheek. “Not all of my powers lie within the bedroom; no more than all of Decentius’ lie without.”
I snorted, then swung myself into the back of the cart. “Ah, no,” Donna Antonia said, as I made to lay beside Cloelie. “Boys on that side, if you please.” She pointed to the far side of one of the chests. I grit my teeth, hoisted myself over, and lay down.
When next I opened my eyes, the sun was in them. Cloelie sat in the front of the cart directing the horses, and Donna Antonia was not to be seen. “Where is she?” I growled. “And why did no one wake me?”
Cloelie smirked and tapped her seat. “She’s asleep in here. And we didn’t need you.” She faced forward and snapped the reigns.
“Didn’t need me?” I hissed. “That is not for you to decide, woman. No,” I held up a hand to stall her interruption, “nor even for Donna Antonia. Decentius has bade me to protect you. I can hardly do that while asleep.” I shoved Cloelie aside and ripped the reigns from her hands. She stared petulantly at me but made no retort.
“Want to practice your lessons?” I grinned.
Cloelie didn’t bother to answer; she merely looked off into the distance. I let her be, until she tried to get into the back of the cart. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Not all of us survive on that,” she retorted, giving the vial of Decentius’ blood a dirty look. “I’m going to have some food.”
“Not until I say so.” She glared and tried to move around my arm. I grabbed her tightly. “I can do this all day, Cloelie.”
She didn’t argue. She just rolled her eyes and knelt between my legs. I made sure it took a long time before she was finished. Several carts passed us going northward; at first she tried to raise her head and stop her work when she heard them approach, but I pressed her firmly downward and she continued, the scent of her embarrassment in my nostrils.
It continued this way for the first two days of our journey, but when Donna Antonia arose on the third night there was little playfulness in her attitude.
“Tell me, Antonius, what sort of resistance am I likely to encounter? Will I need to demonstrate my powers or can you handle that part?” At this last she smiled and caressed my upper thigh; it was less effective than it had been, but I smiled nonetheless.
“Oh, I can handle any roughing up that needs to occur, Donna.” She grinned and stroked my leg. “They should all have learned their lesson. But if they haven’t it will be Benedetta, the kitchen mistress, who organizes things.” I could see Benedetta’s bloody face; her nose smashed, and hoped she would present a problem.
Donna Antonia nodded thoughtfully. She stopped rubbing my leg and tapped her hands in her lap as we entered the outskirts of Siracusae. She gazed into the distance and chewed her lip. “We shall see what happens when we arrive.” Donna Antonia turned to me. “Just don’t kill anyone without my say-so, hmm? Antonius?”
I refrained from snorting by taking a deep breath. “Yes, Donna, only when you say so.” If there was time for her to say so, intimidation would work.
I directed the cart through the streets, ignoring Cloelie’s cries of surprise at every new sight. Donna Antonia merely smiled when we passed the market and the tavernas. I saw her nod to a fellow outside one; he nearly fell into the water barrel.
I didn’t bother stopping out front of the brothel but took the cart directly down the alley to the back entrance. Donna Antonia glanced at me as we moved into the alley but wisely said nothing.
There was no one in the yard to meet us. I tied the horse up and looked to Donna Antonia. She smiled, held out her hand, and jumped down. “Come Cloelie,” she called as the two of us walked to the door. I heard Cloelie’s feet rapping behind us.
When we reached the door Donna Antonia cocked her head at me. I smiled and thrust the door inwards. Clattering, thuds, and loud shrieks assaulted our ears as we entered. I could see Benedetta, wide-eyed, frozen in the midst of kneading bread. “You!” she stuttered.
My grin spread from ear to ear. It was so nice to be remembered. “Me,” I replied. “And I have brought Donna Antonia, as promised, to inspect her new property. I trust everything is in order?”
Benedetta’s eyes flicked from me to Donna Antonia. “Donna Antonia,” she sputtered, “buona sera.” Benedetta unfroze, took her hands from the dough and wiped them on her tunic front. “Shall I take you to see Diamantina, Donna? She has been running things since…” her voice trailed off as her eyes flicked back to me.
Donna Antonia patted my arm and smiled up at me before letting go and Benedetta’s arm instead. “Yes, mio caro, that would be well done, indeed.” Donna Antonia began leading a blinking Benedetta towards the innards of the brothel. “Oh Antonius,” she called back at me as she pushed the door open. “Send Cloelie in when you go to fetch my trunks, would you?” Her smile flashed as the door swung shut.
With a smirk to the room at large, I went back outside. Cloelie was waiting on the other side of the door. “What are you doing here?” I growled. “She needs you inside.” Edging around me, Cloelie went after Donna Antonia.
When I got to the cart I stood staring at the trunks. I could lift all three at once, but I wasn’t sure about navigating the brothel while balancing them all. I didn’t want to be caught off guard. I decided to take them one by one; Decentius would be impressed at my restraint, if he were inclined to care about such minutiae.
No one looked at me as I walked through the kitchen. I didn’t see anyone as I continued upstairs to Donna Euphemia’s old room, Donna Antonia’s room now. I did hear noises behind several of the doors, apparently death hadn’t kept business away for long.
I pushed my way into Donna Antonia’s new room and saw her lounging idly on the bed, the pretty boy who’d greeted me last time at her feet, Cloelie hovering beside her. “Oh good,” she smiled as I came in. “Put those over there, will you?” I moved to the spot she indicated and dropped the trunk.
As I turned to leave, she came behind me. With a touch to my cheek, she stopped me. “Sadly, I won’t be able to entertain you tonight. But once you’ve finished, do feel free to find someone. Perhaps Cloelie would oblige?” She turned to Cloelie who blanched.
“If you wish,” was all Cloelie replied.
I sped out of the room to retrieve the rest of the trunks. It seemed there’d be some entertainment tonight after all.
It had been an amusing evening. The pretty boy, Calictus, was very adept at serving women. I didn’t ask if he’d served Euphemia but, since he knelt at my feet and offered to serve in any way I need, while blushing, I was fairly certain he had.
I gathered up the staff just before dawn. There was a large salon downstairs, for entertaining multiple parties at once, and they all crowded in; including a gloating Antonius and a skittish look Cloelie. I hoped Decentius decided what he was going to use her for soon; she wouldn’t last much longer.
The girls lounged on the sofas, they kitchen staff looked awkwardly around and tried not to touch anything. “I am Donna Antonia,” I began, “mistress of this household. Despite the method in which I acquired it, I mean you no harm.” There was a barely stifled grunt from Antonius; I ignored him. “Diamantina, you Benedetta will instruct Cloelie on the finer matters of running this household. My hours will start once darkness falls; all who wish to see me should be informed of that. Do not make the mistake that I will not know if things go amiss. I am allowing you to continue on. Do not tempt the consequences.” There were several nods, and few loud gulps, and a smirk or two. I noted the smirkers for dinner tomorrow.
“Antonius will stay the day tomorrow and leave before nightfall. His abilities are the least of those I can make use of.” That provoked a general shuddering, and pallor in all but Cloelie. “Are there any questions?”
Benedetta stepped forward, her floured hands clenching and unclenching. “Does Donna have any requests from the market?”
I smiled. “No. I shall find my own meals.” Benedetta’s eyes went wide and their were several loud gasps, enough that I could not pinpoint the sources. They would take it as insult, and then, when I did not go out for food, it would give them something to fixate on. Something other than how to plot against me.
When the murmurings had quieted down, Diamantina stepped forward. “Donna,” she nodded smoothly in my direction, “is there anyone in particular you are expecting?” Her expression was careful but I could see the glint of ambition in her eyes; did she intend to take my clients for her own, or find some other way to use them?
I smiled, as calmly and coolly as she. “I never expect them,” I replied, “but I will know which ones are mine. And so will they.” Diamantina’s nose curled in annoyance at my vagueness, so I decided to give her something to work with. “Antonius’ master, Dio Decentius, shall be arriving eventually.” I glanced deliberately at Antonius, who smiled and bowed. “You will be given notice when it is needed.”
Diamantia bowed her head in assent, but I saw the flick of her tongue as she tasted the possibilities to come.
“Now, it is nearly morning and I will retire to my room.” Diamantina flicked her eyes between Benedetta and me. “Cloelie, Antonius, Diamantia, follow me.” She would have to start her plotting later, but those few minutes might let me know what shape it would take.
As I walked from the salon, the footsteps of the others clattering behind me, saving Antonius who stalked as always, the slaves began shuffle slowly about; none would leave the room until I had departed. At least this Euphemia had instilled proper behaviour. Too bad she had also inspired misguided loyalty.
I went up the stairs and back to the room beside the awful tapestry. When I plopped down on the bed Cloelie hovered for a moment, then sat at my feet; Antonius and Diamantina just stood and stared.
“Diamantina, tell me how business has been.” I leaned back and looked at her. Antonius decided it was a good time to pace; he moved back and forth just behind Diamantina. She swung her head each time he moved, trying to keep him in view. I bit my cheek to keep from laughing.
“It’s fine,” Diamantina began. “Steady. Regulars coming weekly, and new folk every few days.” She twisted her head so often, I thought it might come off. I wondered what Antonius would do if it did. “Damn you, stop!” Diamantine yelled, swinging round to face Antonius.
“Why?” he smiled his wolfish smile. “Am I bothering you?” Now he had stopped moving and instead stared intently at her. Diamantina took a step backward, then another. Not watching behind her, she tripped over my outstretched leg. Antonius caught her just as she started to fall. “Careful now,” he growled, “we wouldn’t want to damage that pretty face of yours.” As he lifted Diamantina to standing he caught my eye with a smirk. “Perhaps I ought to escort this one to her room, Donna? Make certain she is uninjured?”
I grinned at his suggestion and the trapped expression on Diamantina’s face. I wondered if Antonius could break her spirit in one night. Or if he’d leave her aching for something good to put between her legs.
Antonius swung Diamantina up into his arms and carried her from the room. I heard him ask which room was hers, and her begin to reply feebly. As their voices faded, I patted the bed beside me, and gestured for Cloelie. “Come,” I whispered, “tell me how things go with Decentius.”
Cloelie rose from the floor, moving first to her knees then pushing herself up to stand before sitting, with a bit too much of a bounce, on the bed beside me. “It goes well, I think. He keeps looking at me as though he wants to tell me something. Sometimes I don’t think he really sees me, that he’s pretending I’m someone else. He seemed glad when I said I’d handle Antonius myself, though. Hasn’t offered since.” Cloelie’s nose curled recalling Decentius’ lack of assistance.
“What is going on with you and Antonius?” I asked, and watched her squirm.
“He keeps at me,” Cloelie replied, twisting and flinching at the thought. “Every time her can get at me, he does. He just wants to humiliate me,” she muttered.
I touched Cloelie’s cheek, turning her face to mine. “Let him think he has,” I advised, “he’ll grow bored soon enough. Besides,” I smiled, stroking her cheek, “Decentius will give you what you want soon enough. Then Antonius will be in your power.”
Cloelie grinned and clenched her hands. “I think I’ll like that,” she said.
Cloelie and Diamantina stood at the two edges of my bed when I awoke. There were too busy glaring at each other to notice my eyes open.
“Where does she get off sicking him on me like that? He’s animal. Donna Euphemia would have thrown him out on his ass rather than have him pollute her staff,” Diamantina spat.
Cloelie snorted. “Please, your precious Donna Euphemia couldn’t survive one encounter with him, and now you want to rewrite history? Antonius is many horrid things,” she gave a little shudder, “but likely to be thrown on his ass is not one of them.”
I stretched unnecessarily and both turned to look at me; Diamantina with worry, Cloelie with confusion. Fortunately Cloelie’s confusion went no further than a look. “So, girls, what do we have on the agenda for this evening?”
“There are three gentlemen who would like an audience with you, Donna,” Cloelie piped up immediately. Diamantina glared at her, but did not interrupt. “The first will be here shortly, the second an hour later, and the third the hour before sunrise.”
I nodded my thanks to Cloelie. “Do you have anything to report?” I purred, turning on Diamantina.
Her eyes flitted about the room before she drew a deep breath. “That Antonius fellow left just after breakfast.” I could see the tension in Diamantina’s cheeks from her gritted teeth. I could almost smell the bile she was forcing back down her throat.
“Good,” I said, rising. “He won’t bother us any longer, then. I’m sure Decentius has better uses for him at home. Fetch me my stola, would you?” I asked. Cloelie jumped, obedience in her face. “Not you, sorellina.” I patted her shoulder, and she corners of her mouth rose hesitantly. Diamantina huffed and stamped to my trunk. There was a thud on the bed behind me, and I turned to find a pale red stole with gold embroidery crumpled upon it. “Thank you,” I said, smiling insincerely at Diamantina.
“You’re welcome,” she replied with the self-same smile. It was good we understood one another.
“Now, send me that pretty Calictus. We have work to do before my appointment arrives.” Cloelie grinned behind her hand and backed away with a curtsy; Diamantia stared at me wide-eyed, shook her head, and stomped from the room. Things were going well.
Calictus entered the room bashly, looking up at me from under rich, dark lashes. He knelt in front of me and prepared to lift my skirts. I chuckled, catching his hand. “That is not what I need from you just now,” I purred. He blinked up at me, those lashes beating against his cheeks like waves on the rocks beneath the villa; soft and deadly. “Stand.”
He stood with a grace that surprised me; not precise and dangerous like Decentius, and certainly not the thud and stalk technique preferred by Antonius, a simple, beautiful grace. I kissed his neck. He turned his head toward me, but I moved it softly away. Then, I bit.
I heard the sharp intake of his breath as I sampled the essence of his life; light and dark playing across my tongue and down my throat. I drew from the dark. His pulse raced, I felt his erection brush my leg; there would be time for that later.
When I had finished, I placed Calictus gently on my bed. His eyes were open. They sent a questioning look in my direction. “Later, boy,” I answered. “When you have regained enough strength to walk, return to your room. I shall be needing this one shortly.”
I straightened by stola, and looked through the nearest trunk for a belt. I found a dark leather one and tied it around my waist. Calictus’s breath was slow and deep, but his face had regained some colour. I flashed him a smile, then walked out through the tapestry.
A quick listen at the upstairs doors revealed that only one girl was currently working. I decided to take a surreptious look around. Relaxing, I leant back into the shadows feeling them caress me as I become one with them.
My shadow drops to the ground and slides under the door. There she is, leaning forward across the bed, the client taking her hard from behind as she moans and screams praise to Eros. By the look on his face, he could care less what she’s saying. He holds her should down and thrusts into her as his face gets that far away look.
When he pulls out, he wipes himself on her bed, pulls on his tunic, and tosses a few coins into the jar on her table. She stays lying where she is until he leaves, then makes a face and fondles herself. “Idiot,” she mutters, “no wonder his wife won’t lie with him.”
Being shadow I cannot chuckle, but I float a little higher. It makes getting back under the door difficult. Down the stairs I go, first into the salon to make sure no one is waiting, and then toward the chattering voices in the kitchen.
“Seriously?” one called stridently. “She summoned him up there before she’s even seen a client?” There was a snort and, as I slipped into the kitchen, the sound of hair slapping as it was tossed from one shoulder to another. “Talk about unprofessional. At least Euphemia waited till she was done for her own entertainment.”
There were nods around the counter, and several thuds. I took a moment to realize the latter were unrelated; Benedetta was rolling out some dough, thudding the pin each time. “She’s the mistress now,” she muttered, “you’d best not speak against her.”
“Why?” scoffed Diamantina, chin high, “it’s not like she can hear us.”
I knew a cue when I heard one. “Isn’t it?” I purred, emerging from the shadows.
The look on Diamantina’s face was worth more denarii than she would see in a lifetime. “D...d..don..bu...but how?” Her hands flailed about her head as words failed her, not at all a ladylike sight.
I smiled. It was not a question I was going to answer, either they would figure it out or they would not; I would offer no assistance. I did not think it likely Cloelie would either, and I would make certain Calictus did not. But that was for later.
“All that matters is that I did hear you. And,” I turned my gaze about the crowded kitchen, “that I heard little objection to your words.” The other girls shuffled their feet, but Benedetta held her head high. “Yes dear,” I moved over and patted her gently on the back, “I heard yours. And only yours.” A flush spread across her face that had little to do with the heat of the kitchen. I turned my eyes back to Diamantina, “Now, you will tell me all you know about the gentlemen who are arriving this evening.”
Diamantina looked around the room for help but none of the girls would meet her eyes. Finally Benedetta spoke up, “It’s the last one you want to pay attention to, Donna. Or not so much him as whomever he works for. Roman, by the accent.”
My eyes widened, and I gave Benedetta another pat. “That is valuable insight indeed, Benedetta. I thank you.” I wondered if a Roman who saught audiences just before dawn was the man Decentius had sent me to find. Could Fortuna be so gracious? “And what of the others?”
Diamantina inhaled deeply while glaring at Benedetta. “The first is a merchant with ties throughout the city and across the seas. The second is a scholar. He used to spend most of his time with Euphemia talking. I think he paid her to not interrupt.”
I chuckled. There were those who thought we had only one job; they were the ones who never bothered to understand the complexity of men. “Gracias, Diamantina.” Although I did not doubt she would lie to me whenever she could, her indignation at Benedetta made it unlikely this was one of those times. I’d find out soon enough.
“Thank you, girls,” I smiled. “I’ll retire to my room for a bit. I’ll see you when the guests arrive.”
There were several pairs of blinking eyes as I turned to leave the kitchen. “What about Calictus?” one of the girls asked. “He usually escorts them in.”
“Is that so?” I replied, pausing. “Well, I’ve sent him out to fetch me a bite. I hope he’s back in time.” As they sputtering began behind me, I left.
There were several large tapestries covering the walls of the lower floor. I pushed one aside and found a hallway. By the darkness and lack of decorations, I judged it to be the servant’s hall. A half dozen doors were spread down its length. At the last one, I heard a rustling sound. Pushing it open, I saw Calictus rising from his pallet.
“Good, you will be ready for your regular duties,” I purred.
“Donna, yes,” he nodded. “I am recovered.” He stared at me, peering at my mouth.
I smiled and showed my teeth. “Nothing to see, I’m afraid.” I stepped forward and ran a hand up his firm chest. “I will explain it all later. Before the last client comes.”
Calictus nodded but said nothing. I glided back out the door and left him to dress; then returned to my shadows. When I entered the kitchen this time, only Benedetta was there. I skirted the house and found all the girls in their rooms, all but Diamantina and Cloelie asleep. Then I went to the salon to wait.
Their were well padded lounges covered with leather and windows draped with thick maroon curtains. Bits gold peaked from the creases of the curtains, and I become myself again to inspect them. I peered closely in the darkness and saw ribbons of gilt thread meandering through the fabric. Whatever else Euphemia had been like, she certainly had expensive tastes.
I pulled aside one curtain to peer out into the street. Some might find the darkness foreboding, though less so when the moon was full like tonight, but I could make out the individual stones paving the street from where I stood. Not that they were especially interesting to look at. I spied a sign that seem to be for a clothier’s shop; there was what appeared to be a bolt of half-unfurled fabric on the design. A fitting place, I supposed, especially if Euphemia and her girls has as expensive tastes in clothing as in drapery.
I heard a shuffling in the hall, and vanished in the shadows once again. A moment later Diamantina, Cloelie, and Calictus entered escorting a rotund gentleman. His tunic was a dark green and shimmered in the candlelight like silk; it probably was. His belt appeared to be decorated with animal teeth. I was certain I’d hear the story of each tooth, at least if things went well. His hair shone with oiling and he had a strong scent of cloves. This, then, was the merchant.
I watched as Diamantina attempted to send Cloelie upstairs to fetch me. Cloelie smiled and demured, Diamantina pressed, and finally Calictus told her to fetch me. Diamantina managed not to storm out, or even frown, but there was little grace in her exit.
“So,” the gentleman began, sitting on one of the sofas, “will you entertain me while I await your Donna Antonia?” His voice was squeaky and far too small for a man of his stature. Worse yet, he pursed his lips like a fish when he spoke. I hoped he did not do it at other times.
Cloelie smiled, dipping her head. “I do not think she will be all that long, Signuri,” she murmured, her eyes scanning the shadows.
Wonderful girl; she knew just how to play second.
As the merchant examined Cloelie’s face, trying to divine what she meant, I gathered myself up and emerged from the shadows beside the door.
“Donna Antonia!” he squeaked, “It is a pleasure to meet you at last.” The sofa creaked as he rose to take my hand. He kept his eyes on my face as he bent to kiss it, then shooed Cloelie and Calictus with a feeble wave on his hand. I saw Cloelie purse her lips to keep from smiling as she turned. “I am Giacinto Eustachius, your humble servant.”
“Signuri,” I murmured, allowing him to pull me down to sit at his feet, “it is my pleasure as well.”
He was easy enough to please after that; all bluster and little substance. I sat below him, agreeing and murmuring, and served him when paused. He seemed pleased enough. “I shall see you again, soon, Donna,” he said, kissing my hand as he left. “I always appreciate a good worker.”
I chuckled at his joke, and waved good-bye.
The scholar was as easy to please as Diamantina had said. A mathematician or logician, he babbled on from the moment he entered discoursing his theories on the nature of the world and asked only that I nod in response. I didn’t even get his name before he kissed my hand and darted out the door into the night.
I sighed, and turned around to see Calictus staring at me. With what would have been a deep breath, and a nod, I took his arm and led him up to my room.
The moment the door shut behind us, Calictus let go of my arm. “You promised me an explanation, Donna,” he murmured.
“I did,” I nodded. “What would you know?” I sat at the of my bed staring up at him. He had worked too long in a bordello for a view of my cleavage to be of more than passing interest, but he looked nonetheless.
“Why did you do it? How did you appear from nowhere? What are you?” His eyes grew wide and his face red as he spoke.
“Sit,” I said, gesturing to the floor beside my feet, “and I will answer your first and last questions. The other you must discover on your own."
Calictus sat at my feet, his legs wrapped around my feet, his hands resting softly on my knees. He was an odd sort of servant for a brothel, but now was not the time to inquire. His pale eyes blinked up at me, waiting.
“I am an Immortal shadow, and I did it because that is how I feed,” I said.
His brow furrowed and his lip rose, he looked adorably confused. “I do not understand, what is an Immortal shadow, Donna?”
I stared a long moment, my fingers twining through his hair as I thought. “How old do you think I am, Calictus?
He blushed and looked at the floor. “It is not proper to speculate on such things, Donna.”
I chuckled, “True. But be assured, your answer will not offend me.” Or if it did, I would not let him know.
“Twenty-one?” Calictus replied hesitantly.
Now his entire face was red. “Twenty-four,” he murmured. I wiped the surprise from my face before he lifted his eyes from the floor.
“I was twenty-three when I was raised,” I replied. “five years ago.” He sputtered some polite reply, and I took his hand. “Here,” I placed it over my heart, “feel.” Calictus tried to pull his hand away but I restrained him. Once he finished his meaningless protests his face went still.
Calictus looked up at me, shock and denial written on his face. He rose to knees leaned into my chest, his ear against my heart. He waited. A long moment passed with nothing but the sound of his breath and the rustle of the blankets. “Nothing. There is nothing,” he finally said.
I shook my head, “No, there is not. A heartbeat would mark me as mortal, and I am not. I am a shadow that exists at the edges of things, between the mortals and the Gods. And you,” I took his face in my hand, “shall serve me.”
He nodded and bent his head to my lap, pulling my stola up over my knees. I laughed, loudly and with no grace. Placing my hands on his face, my fingers at the sides of his narrowed eyes, I pulled Calictus up until he was sitting beside me once again. He looked perplexed, ready to inquire.
“Shh,” I murmured, placing a finger over his lips. I glanced at my nails but they were not sharp enough. Then I spied something winking silver hanging from Euphemia’s old guardaroba; a silver hairpin, ornate, gaudy, and extremely sharp. I plucked it from where it hung, held it o my ear. As I began to draw it downward along my neck, I heard Calictus’ gasp.
“Donna, what? Donna!” The blankets rustled as he rose, and I heard his feet thud on the floor before his hands wrenched me around to face him. The blood oozed down my neck, a small pool forming at the top of my collar bone. “What have you done! You will mar your beauty!” I smiled at his distress and pulled him against me. His thick hair caressed my wrist as I pressed his lips to my collarbone.
He kissed it, as I had known he would, and drew his tongue upwards along the cut. Pausing at the top, I heard him swallow. I smiled and bent my neck.
It is difficult to give the obvious signs of pleasure when one breathes only for speech; gasping gulps of air are painful, as is the fullness necessary to raise my breasts. I did it, though; I gasped in pleasure, not entirely feigned, but it was brief, a short, sharp gasp.
Calictus lifted his head, his lips smeared with my blood, his face flushed. Smiling, I walked across to the low table beside my bed and fetched the pitcher of water. “Drink,” I said, raising it to his lips. Calictus smiled, and drank, his eyes not leaving mine.
He returned the pitcher to its table, turning it so the mural of Aphrodite and her lover faced outward. “I am here to serve you,” he said as knelt at my feet. Slowly his hands slid up my legs, lifting the folds of my stola out of the way. Slowly he kissed my thighs, drawing his tongue ever upward. His fingers slipped inside the edge of my undergarments, searching for the source of my pleasure. When they found it, I moaned.
Calictus was skilled: with one hand he stroked me, and my loins began to ache; with his lips he traced the edges of thighs, my loins, taunting; with the other hand he undid my undergarments and they fell with a damp plop to the floor. The moment they were gone, his warm mouth began its work. His tongued moved slowly, then quickly, then slowly until I grabbed his head and drove it into my loins. I felt his warm breath as he chuckled, but his tongue resumed its pace.
With tongue, lips, and teeth, he brought me shuddering to climax; second only to that I enjoyed with Decentius. The boy was really very well trained.
“Thank you,” I murmured when he rose, licking my juices from his face. “I will see you again.” He nodded. I pressed my mouth to his, but his hands caught me from behind and clutched me tightly. I did not need to move against him to feel the length of his erection, but he moaned as I did so. A few tight squeezes and he came. I kissed his forehead and whispered, “Later we shall do things properly.”
Calictus smiled. “I await your call, Donna Antonia.”
I felt his eyes follow me as I sauntered toward the door. Turning my head, I caught his eye and beckoned him with a nod. If this Roman were who I hoped, it would be best to have my own servanti along. Besides, I wanted to see what happened when Calitcus discovered his new strength.
His steps pattered behind me as I trod down the stairs. I nodded at Calictus as he headed for the door to await the night’s final patron, and I turned toward the kitchen. In the kitchen I found Diamaninta and Cloelie sleepily counting the night’s proceeds and laughing over the stories the girls had told them.
“Donna,” they nodded. I walked past and out into the courtyard behind. The breeze that blew across my face was warm and wet; it told of dawn and rain to come. Behind me the thunk, thunk of the door warned that I was not alone.
“He has arrived, Donna,” Cloelie called. As I turned, I saw her framed in the first touches of light, her shadow thrown large behind her.
I walked through the kitchen, where Diamantina’s head nodded sleepily as she sat counting coins, down the tapestried hall to the salon where I spied Calictus waiting. He took my arm and escorted me in.
There was only the one candle flickering its light upon the room but the man waiting did not seem to mind. He was not seated; instead he stood beside the undrawn curtains staring at the room. He smirked when he saw me, his eyes scanning from top to bottom and back, resting where the top of my stola dipped between my breasts.
“Donna,” he bowed, “I am Fabricius.” He smelt of lavender, and his dark hair hung in a cable down his back. I curtsied in return. “My master Iulianus Marus has sent me to determine if your establishment befits his patronage.”
I shooed Calictus with a wave of my arm. “Come,” I said, “Let us discuss the matter somewhere more appropriate.” Fabricius’ smirk grew, but he took my arm and allowed me to lead him to my room barely glancing at the tapestries as we passed.
He let go of my arm the moment we entered, glanced around, dropped his tunic on the floor and lay back on my bed. His words and his erection were direct, “If you can wear me out, I shall recommend you to my master.” He licked his lips, his eyes fixed upon my breasts as I dropped my stola to the floor. They stayed there as I sashayed across the floor. His fingers reached for my nipples as I rose over him. He began to grab and pull at them even as I slid down his length.
I rocked upon him as he sucked my breasts; his breath barely increased. I rode faster, squeezing his phallus with my inner muscles; he gasped and began to buck beneath me. As his thrusting increased, his took his lips from my breasts, replacing them with his hands.
Finally he groaned loudly and I felt a trickle run down my thigh; I smiled. Fabricius breathed deeply and grabbed my buttocks. I felt him grow hard within me once more. My smirk matched his own as he said, “It’s not that easy, Donna.”
Fabricius was nearly as insatiable as Decentius, though he never moved from his spot beneath me. Five times he came, his hardness returning again and again with barely a moment between. When he pushed me off him to kneel at the foot of the bed, I was almost glad; I would require a long bath to remove all his fluids. He sat up, but his erection did not. I held my smile. The moments passed and finally he was erect once more, though not as fully as when he had first lain down. I took him in my mouth, my tongue working his length, flitting in and out of his foreskin. I heard his moans become pleas, and his pleas become incoherent. When he came scarcely a trickle ran down my throat.
I licked my lips and looked up from where I knelt. Fabricius lay back upon the bed breathing deeply, his phallus limp and shriveled. “You win,” he moaned, propping himself on one arm. He staggered up from the bed and donned his tunic. “Donna,” he murmured, “if you can defeat me so well my master shall surely wish to see you.”
I lifted my stola over my head, and heard a loud jingle of coin as I tied it at my waist. Fabricius took my hand and kissed it before I led him back to the front door.
“Donna,” he murmured patting my hand, “my master shall call upon you an hour after sundown tomorrow.”
I nodded and let him go. As I returned to my room, I saw Cloelie dart down the hall.
The pigeon arrived at the villa before Antonius. Cloelie had done as I asked; she had sent word the moment Antonia contacted a Roman. It did not appear that the Roman in question had actually made contact, but he would soon enough. In fact, as it was evening when I received the bird’s message, it was likely he was making contact just then.
I tried not to focus on the method of contact, but found myself wondering if that pulsing insistency existed in all Immortal pairings. And whether this Roman even was Immortal.
Walking back to the villa from the aviary, I spied a light in the barn. There were two shadows outlined inside. As I approached I heard the boy Nikolaos mention the Greek Yanis, then Theophilus’ voice cut across demanding to know when Yanis’ master would meet him.
“He, he said, he said he’d send a pigeon,” Nikolaos stuttered.
Theophilus stood very still examining Nikolaos. I moved closer, needing to see the expression on Nikolaos’ face, needing to know if it was fear or lies that made him stutter. Nikolaos stood in Theophilus shadow, his eyes darting. I knew that Theophilus was trying to same tactic I wished to use. Fortunately, I caught Nikolaos’ eyes first.
“Calm,” I murmured in the slave’s mind. “Calm. Let him meet your eyes. He will not touch your mind.” I felt Nikolaos’ panic subside and saw his chin rise. “Carefully,” I cautioned, “do not make him suspicious of your boldness.” I felt Nikolaos’ mind smile; though his chin still rose, his eyes were downcast.
Theophilus stepped forward and bent into Nikolaos’ view. His mind pushed at Nikolaos, grabbing and unsubtle. “The truth,” I heard Theophilus say, “tell me the truth.”
Again I felt Nikolaos mind smile. More than smile, laugh. “Which truth, maggiordomo?” I spoke through Nikolaos’ lips. His mind told me the truth Theophilus searched for; Yanis’ master would send a pigeon to Theophilus, but the true message was in a bottle of wine that now lay in the cart.
“When will Yanis’ master meet with me?” Theophilus asked.
“I do not know,” Nikolaos’ voice replied.
Theophilus grunted in annoyance. “Technicalities. When will his master contact me?”
“He will send you a pigeon,” Nikolaos’ voice droned.
Theophilus stared into Nikolaos’ blank expression. After several moments, he replied, “Fine. Be sure to contact me when it arrives. And do give a thorough inventory to our master,” he grimaced. “I wouldn’t want it thought that we were hiding anything.”
“Yes, maggiordomo,” Nikolaos droned.
Theophilus stood and watched as Nikolaos shook himself. “Do not meet his eyes,” I warned Nikolaos’ mind. I watched as Nikolaos twitched and fidgeted until an irritated Theophilus turned and strode out of the barn. So intent was he on his destination, so perturbed by his encounter with Nikolaos, that the maggiordomo passed by me without even turning his head.
In the distance I saw a square of light appear and then disappear; Theophilus had gone inside. I walked into the barn, and found Nikolaos searching through the contents of the cart. At my footsteps he turned swiftly, then relaxed when he saw it was me. “I have something for you, Dio,” he said. Nikolaos stood and jumped down from the cart, a bottle in his hand. “I believe you know what this is,” he said, then turned red and stared at his feet.
I took the bottle from him and opened it. The scent of fermentation and grapes wafted out. I peered into the bottle; there was something floating in it. I peered at the side of the bottle, but it was difficult to tell what was inside. “Did he tell you how to remove it?” I asked.
Nikolaos shook his head. “I didn’t even see him put it in, he simply said that is where you would find your message, and that he’d send another to Theophilus by a more common route.”
I nodded, puzzled. If there was a message in this bottle it should have been destroyed by the wine. Perhaps if it was gone the message would be easier to retrieve. I took a sip. The wine was rich, sweet and fruity with a familiar copper undertone. I spat it out. Nikolaos jumped backward as I dumped the contents of the bottle on the ground. It was possible the Greeks had known what Signuri Umbrae was, they had traded with him before, but I had not confirmed my identity.
When the wine finished splashing on the ground, I peered into the bottle. There was a tight scroll sitting in it. My fingers would not reach it, nor would Nikolaos’ fingers. I tipped the bottle again and shook. This simple expedient moved the scroll into the neck of the bottle, from there I easily pulled it out.
The paper was wet and smelt of grapes and blood. As I unrolled it, I felt a waxy coating on the material; the Greeks had covered the paper with wax to prevent it from being damaged by the wine. This did, however, make the writing less legible.
I muttered to myself as I deciphered the text. Nikolaos wisely decided to use his time to unload the cart, the ensuing grunts and clatter masking my speech as best he could. “Signuri Agapios shall be pleased to meet with Signuri Decentius and his man at the Fisherman’s Diner in Messana on the night of the waning quarter,” it read.
Excellent. Antonius would have returned by then, and we would travel directly to Messana. We would have to, there would be little time to spare. “Is the second wagon complete?” I asked Nikolaos.
He paused in his unloading of the cart. “Nearly, Dio,” he replied. “Kyrios and I should be able to finish it tomorrow.”
I nodded my approval. “Come here a moment.” Nikolaos blinked but obeyed with alacrity. He gasped as I tilted his head to the side. “Shh,” I murmured before I fed.
Fortunately my hunger was not great and Nikolaos still had energy remaining to complete his task.
When I arose the next evening, Antonius was lounging against my bedpost while Nikolaos stood by, glancing surreptiously about the room. In the shadows near the door I made out another form, Kyrios.
“Evening,” Antonius grunted the moment my head began to rise. “I hear there’s no rest for the wicked.” He grinned.
I raised a brow and held Antonius’ gaze until he shrugged. “Nothing this time, Dio. Well,” he grinned, “nothing I wasn’t asked to do.”
There was no awkwardness in his posture, just pure visceral enjoyment. I decided not to challenge his interpretation of events; such acts would get dull over time and lead Antonius to gain strength faster than I wished.
Antonius moved to my guardarobda, tossing me a dark tunic as I stood. “Fine,” I said as I slipped it on. “And it seems Antonia is getting on well for now. We must see to things with the Greeks, then head to Siracusae before she has the Roman wrapped around her fingers.”
“Or thighs,” Antonius grunted. His head swung up and he peered at me. “Do you mean…?”
“Yes,” I nodded, “already.” Kyrios and Nikolaos politely ignored our conversation, though I could see Kyrios’ brow furrow as he attempted to decipher our meaning. I turned to Nikolaos. “Are the goods the Greeks requested loaded?”
“Yes, Dio,” he nodded. “The maggiordomo was insistent upon it.” Kyrios nodded along with Nikolaos’ response.
I eyed Antonius, who merely shrugged. “You have nothing to report on the activites of Theophilus?” I asked.
Antonius shook his head and shrugged. “No, Dio, I do not. I didn’t arrive until the sun was down, and by then all the work had been done.”
I examined the men in front of me. Antonius, disheveled and uncaring, his muddy brown hair and indeterminate tunic covered with road dust; Nikolaos, dark haired and eager to please, his eyes fixed firmly on that nowhere all good slaves knew; and Kyrios, ruddy and alert, committed to bettering himself in this new alliance.
“Who has Theophilus assigned to this transaction?” I asked.
“Myself, Stelios, and Tryphon,” Nikoloas replied, eyes now fixed upon my collarbone. He saw my nod and raised them.
“And can we trust these two? Will Theophilus have arranged communication with them?”
Nikolaos shook his head. “No, Dio. I was placed in charge. They are merely along to ensure we move with sufficient speed.”
I nodded; it was a long journey to Messana, and three slaves taking it in turn to drive the cart would get there faster than one alone. “Good,” I said, fixing my eyes upon Kyrios. “The aviary has several special birds. Their eyes gleam redder than the others and they do not eat grain.” Kyrios nodded in understanding. “If there is news, send one to me.” Again, Kyrios nodded.
I strode forward. Kyrios stepped back, opening the door as he did so. A quick glance at Antonius showed him glaring at the usurpation of his position, though he had made no attempt to fulfill his duty. I walked onward, the three following me. Kyrios disappeared as we passed the hall leading to the kitchen, but Antonius and Nikolaos dogged my heels all the way to the barn. Antonius and I walked steadily in pale moonlight, but Nikolaos lagged behind peering at the path. his mortal eyes uncertain of the terrain. Once we were close to the barn, however, Nikolaos dodged ahead surefooted and opened the doors.
Antonius sprang ahead, skulking near the edges of the barn, alert for intruders. I merely closed my eyes and let my mind spread. I felt the insistent hunger that was Antonius, the cautious order of Nikolaos’ preparations, and flickers of dreams coming from the loft. I opened my eyes to see Antonius peering beneath the loft looking for a way up. I could hear rustling as the sleepers shifted, and Antonius was determined to find out what it was. He wanted something to hurt.
“Leave it,” I spoke across the barn my focus on Antonius. He froze, crouched. “Leave them. They’re asleep.” I watched as Antonius shifted his weight trying to move toward whatever he had spied that would take him up to the loft. I did not laugh. Instead I turned to Nikolaos.
“Nikolaos, would you know the two who are to accompany you by sight?” I asked. I saw him nod from where he was trying to light a lamp. “Good. I believe they are asleep in the loft. Go and check.”
Nikolaos’ head nodded once, as the lamp flared alight. I heard a hiss escape my lips at the sudden flash, but Nikolaos was already moving. He avoided Antonius’ twitching frame and moved directly to a ladder at the side of the barn. He and his lamp disappeared then emerged a straw filtered glow, and finally Nikolaos’ thin form. His lamp swung as he peered about the loft. When I saw it rise as his head lowered, I knew he had found them.
Antonius gave up his attempts to resist my command and marched to my side, muttering. “Why’d you let him go up there? Dio?” he finished.
I turned to face him. Antonius’ lips curled in a snarl, his hands swung in clenched fists at his sides, and he looked ready to pounce. “Because I did not need them killed,” I answered. Antonius snorted and went to sit in the cart.
Nikolaos nodded once upon his return. “Yes, Dio, they are the men who are to accompany us in the morning.”
“Good,” I replied, “and did Theophilus set a time for departure?”
Nikolaos shook his head. “No, Dio. All he said was that he wanted us gone before the sun rose.”
I smiled. How thoughtful of Theophilus. It made me wonder if he knew I was headed to see the Greeks. The two he had sent with Nikolaos would bear watching. “Antonius,” I called. Antonius raised his head in my direction but did not move. “Fetch those two down. Without harming them.”
I heard Antonius’ snort as he loped past me, but when he returned with a man slung over each shoulder neither was injured. “In the cart,” I said. He dropped them amongst the goods. “Now, we are ready.”
The box was cramped and unyielding, when I awoke to the sound of Antonius’ growling. I could smell fresh blood, and it didn’t smell like Antonius.
I smashed the lid of my box. There was a yelp as it rose then, free of the driver’s weight, it swung open. Starlight and night air washed over me as I sprang from the cage. My head swung toward the noise and the scent of blood.
Antonius was grappling with a dark form. His ear was torn, and there were spatters of blood on the back of his neck. The form seemed to shift and pull, but Antonius gripped and swung even as the form moved. Antonius bashed his head forward and the form billowed backward.
Abruptly the form solidified. He was beaten and bloody, his tunic torn, and his grey hair matted. I watched the two as the dirt around the feet exploded and fell, exploded and fell. No other part of them moved, so locked together were they. I saw Antonius blur as he shifted his weight with heightened speed, bending beneath the other to flip him to the ground. But it did not happen, as fast as Antonius moved, the other responded, and the stalemate continued.
I stepped down from the dart and walked toward them. The moon was waning, but there was light enough to see his face as they circled one another. It was Theophilus.
I took a step back and stood in the shadow of the cart. I heard whimpers from within, and turned to see Nikolaos and the two others huddled down amongst the cargo. One by one I caught their eyes and sent them off to sleep; it was easier that way.
When I turned back to the fight, Antonius was standing behind Theophilus pulling the maggiordomo’s arms back, forcing him down. Theophilus let him, bending his knees as he went down. I wondered if I should warn Antonius.
Theophilus was bent double, his knees in his chest, but Antonius still had his arms. Then Antonius leaned forward and vaulted over the maggiordomo pulling him into a flip. Theophilus arced high over Antonius and came down with a thud onto the hard packed road. Antonius had had to let go when Theophilus began his arc but in the maggiordomo’s moment of shock, Antonius pinned him once more. There was a grunt and a wet cracking noise as Antonius snapped the maggiordomo’s neck.
I moved from my shadow to where Antonius kneeled, panting, over the body. “Move,” I commanded.
Antonius turned to me, glaring. “His mine, I killed him. I want what he’s got.”
I smiled. “You may have whatever want that is on his body. I want what is in it. Now move.”
Antonius growled but moved aside.
I knelt beside the body and carefully lifted the broken neck to my lips. As the blood coursed down my throat, I felt its strength. It was not simply the strength of life, as any human would possess, but the strength of death and shadow that Theophilus had gained from Signuri Umbrae. It rang in my head and vibrated through my body; I only wished there were an enemy at hand so I might use this newfound strength.
When I finished drinking, I rose to better assess the situation. Antonius was stretching, his neck cracking and popping as and it rolled; his tunic was splattered with blood, and bloody smears were congealing on his face where he had failed to wipe them away.
“What happened?” I demanded.
Antonius grinned, his tongue searching his face for a trace of blood. “He came upon us as the sun fell. Apparently it bothered him that he could find neither you nor I at the villa.”
“So you killed him?”
“Of course.” As though no other response was possible.
It had been inevitable that this moment would come, yet I had hoped to gain more knowledge of Signuri Umbrae before it did. “Bury him,” I said.
Antonius scowled. “Why?”
I stared at Antonius. “He is a slave known to be a member of my villa. I do not want to be answering awkward questions tomorrow night.”
Antonius knelt and searched the body. He took a knife, a wineskin, and a charm then dragged the body off the road and used the knife to dig. The grave was shallow so he hacked the body into pieces to make it fit.
“You will need to wash your tunic,” I said when he returned.
He examined his tunic, then shrugged. “There’s sure to water somewhere. And these hills are full of wildlife. Perhaps I just killed us some dinner.” He stopped a moment, looking at me and then the grave. “True enough,” he laughed.
There was no point arguing. “Then we had best be far gone before the grave. Romans are efficient; they will want to investigate.” I strode back to the cart.
I ignored Antonius as he removed his tunic and rinsed it in a nearby puddle. Instead, I went to the horses. We would need to move quickly, and I did not want Antonius beating them for speed; bloody horses would draw comment. It was the as the birds. I took the lead horse’s head and drew it down to mine. It was difficult to stare in its eyes; the eyes of prey, one a side for better viewing. I found it did not matter, one was enough to make contact. Calmed, it listened. It began to understand and I felt the wind on its shanks, swirling around my legs. Smiling, I took my seat and watched as Antonius dropped thes wineskin into the cart.
Antonius’ eyes narrowed when he noticed my expression. He kept watch as he sat slowly onto the seat beside me and raised the reigns into his lap. “Would you care for the reigns, Dio?” he asked. I shook my head. With his eyes fixed on me, Antonius snapped the reigns.
It was a mistake, one he paid for by pitching backward into the hay. I grabbed the reigns, watching the road as Antonius stood and dusted the hay off his tunic. At least it covered the blood. As he climbed across the seat to retake his place, I heard his teeth grind. “You could have warned me. Dio,” he growled, and grabbed the reigns.
I raised a brow. “I thought I had,” I replied. “Had you used your skills, you would not have fallen.”
Antonius fixed his eyes on the road ahead, the muscles of his jaw clenching. “So it was a test, then?”
“It is always a test,” I replied. “Perhaps when you learn that, you will pay closer attention. And think.”
Antonius snorted. “I will think with my fist,” he retorted. “It is the smartest part of me.”
I did not disagree.
The rest of the night passed in silence, save for the plodding of the horses hooves.
I remembered this road, and those days when I had crossed it in sunlight. The sounds were different now, and the flowers that opened in the moonlight had not the same smell. The white top of Mount Etna was a ghostly reflection, its surrounding greens muted into the blues of night. How I missed the sharpness of the day; the shock of white against green, the tang of lemon in the air, the distant sparkles and scent of fresh water that told when we passed a lake. It seemed so lively. The nights seemed hushed and muted; the flowers closed, the sparkles gone, the colours washed with black. And through it all hung the spectre of death.
As the scent of sunrise filled the air, I spied a puddle. I did not need to touch the reigns to make the horse stop, nor even to see its eyes; all I needed was to touch its mind. Antonius cursed and lashed the reigns. “Stop,” I said. “Go wash your tunic.” He curled his nose then leapt from the cart. While Antonius sloshed his tunic in the water, I lifted the seat and climbed into my bed. I knew when he returned to cart by the drops of water that began to coalesce on the ceiling. Before Antonius could flay the horse, I touched its mind and we were one our way.
We passed three more nights in silence, and no more in blood.
On the fourth night, the scent of salt rang through my teeth before I touched the lid. The cries of gulls filled my ears, and I knew we had come to Messana. The lid lifted at my tap, and I rose to see a harbor full of sails. The moon had not yet risen, but I recalled its fullness from the previous night; it was a hair above the quarter.
The cart began to rattle as the road changed from beaten earth to stone. I turned to Nikolaos. “Take us to the Fisherman’s Diner.” He nodded. “I thought we weren’t to meet him till the quarter,” Antonius said from where he lounged beside me.
“We are to meet Signuri Agapios at the quarter moon,” I said, “but that does not mean we shall see no one of interest tonight.”
The taverna was dark and damp, the lights a scattering of flickering lamps, the wooden walls and tables slick with mold. I wondered why anyone would eat here. The outside had been no better, gulls sat and shat across the building; whether it had been painted white when it was built, it was surely white now. We had left Nikolaos with the cart, awake and alert at my bidding. He would not need to yell for my attention.
Antonius looked around for any servotta but there were none to be found, only men deep in their cups and corners talking away in whispers. Then one approached us.
“Bueno sera, Signore,” the man said. Antonius peered across the table at the stranger, his lip curling. I leaned back in my chair and scanned his face, the almost black hair, the brown eyes attempting warmth with their smile, the dirty olive skin and the white teeth that grinned from the red crack of his mouth. “How are you this evening?”
Antonius began to stand, but stopped when I replied, “Fine, Signore,” in my best Greek. “And you?”
“Always eager to make friends, hey? This,” his arm swung to encompass the taverna, “is a friendly place.”
Antonius snorted. “You doubt me, schiavo?” Antonius growled at being called a slave but the man remained smiling. “Is he a man, or a dog, your schiavo? he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, and waited.
“Heh,” the stranger laughed. “So, are you here to meet or to sell?”
“Neither, we are here for some food.”
The stranger laughed loudly for several moments, pounding the table in glee, before he noticed that I did not share his mirth. He stopped, staring at me in confusion, “You are not joking?” I shook my head. “Ha! You must have been misinformed. No one comes here for the food.”
“But there is food?” The growling of Antonius’ stomach was beginning to annoy me.
The stranger shrugged. “If you knock on that door, they will bring you something. You can decide if it is worth your life to eat it.” He grinned.
I nodded to Antonius and he went to knock on the door. “You have asked me what I was here for, and I have answered,” I said. “Now it is your turn.”
“I am here to meet. And before you ask, my curious friend, I am here to meet anyone interesting.” He nodded across the table. “I am Zenon Astyanax, a man of many talents.”
I refrained from chuckling. “And I am Decentius, a humble farmer.”
Zenon nodded at my words, “I have heard this before. Yet it is an unusual farmer who comes here so late at night. How do you manage to rise when the cock crows?
“That is what servants are for,” I replied, nodding toward the corner where Antonius was now devouring a barely cooked piece of fish. Astyanax smiled. “Servants, and strangers.” A chuckle. “Tell me of your talents.”
There was a snarl behind me as Antonius returned from his dinner. “You may wait with the cart. Nikolaos needs his sleep.”
“As you wish, Dio,” Antionius said, his lip curling as he bowed. The door made a wet thud when it closed behind him.
Astyanax looked at the door then back at me. I saw the questions he did not ask on his face. “My talents are many, Signore,” he began. “I have talented hands, talented feet, talented ears, and a talented tongue.”
“Is your tongue talented at silence?” I asked.
“It is as talented in stillness as in movement,” he replied.
“And what have your talented ears heard of Signore Agapios?” I asked.
Zenon Astyanax narrowed his eyes and went still. “That is a name not often spoken. It takes ears of great skill to hear it, and a swift mind and leg to live past the hearing. You are fortunate that I have both.” I sat, listening. “He does not live here, Signore, but he has many men who do his work while he relaxes in Greece. He trades in everything.” I raised a brow. “Everything, Signore. And he fears the Romans.”
I pondered. “Individually, or collectively?”
Astyanax shrugged, his face contorted. “That I cannot say. I have never seen him in the company of a Roman, individually or collectively,” he grinned. “Nor do his men trade with them.”
“That is odd,” I replied. Traders rarely scrupled over who bought their goods, so long as they could pay; especially traders who sold everything. “And what of his man, Yannis?”
Astyanax chuckled, “That one is a rogue, but harmless enough. He blusters his way about and nobody pays him no mind.”
I refrained from replying; Yannis had not seemed like a blustering fool when I met him. “Thank you for the use of your talents,” I said, sliding a silver across the table. “Perhaps I will use the again.” Astyanax nodded, bowing across the table, and slipped the coin out of sight.
I went to find my men, and an inn before the sun rose. I would think somewhere else.
The next two nights were filled with similar conversations and many sightings of Romans. Antonius had come to blows with one the first day, while I slept; when I had awoken I found half a bag of silver denarii beside my head.
We’d been fortunate to find an inn quickly that first night. Nikolaos had proved his worth, showing us directly to a reputable, yet quiet, inn whose rooms where without windows. Apparently Signuri Umbrae had favoured it. Beyond the obvious charms, the master and mistress of the inn were easily swayed by a long look in the eye, and they kept many servants and slaves. They provided me with a fresh slave for my needs each evening.
Antonius and Nikolaos listened while I slept, hearing the talk of Messana. Most of it was of Rome, and how long it would be before she came to the island in force. None of the trueborn Sicilians thought it would be long; many had already learned the names of the new gods, and begun to trade with Roman coin. The stories of conquest and survival had been passed down to them; they wanted their skins more than Greek protection.
The Greek-Sicilians thought differently. They wanted to fight and keep what was theirs, despite the fact they’d taken it from someone else. Irony appeared lost on them, as did the fact of Roman military might. Few had beaten the Romans at their own game, conquest, and I doubted the Greeks would be the ones to finally defeat them; Greece was full of wisdom, not fire.
There were Romans in the city, traders doing business and soldiers scouting the next target; one and the same. Antonius brought me to meet one the second evening.
There was a taverna in the high town overlooking the port, sea breezes blowing through, mountain flowers scented the salted air. This was where I met the Roman. He was unusal for a Roman, with curling brown hair and a pointed chin framing his rounded face. The hands he steepled on the table bore no signs of calluses, and he kept adjusting the toga that was not there.
“Good evening,” I said as Antonius and I approached his table.
His lips smiled, but his eyes did not, as he returned my greeting. “Good evening to you. I had not expected visitors.” He made two gestures, one to summon a slave and one to suggest I sit. I did, Antonius did not; instead he watched the room, refraining from glaring at the other slaves. “Wine?” the Roman asked.
I nodded. “Thank you.” We would soon see if Antonius’ suspicions were correct; he and Nikolaos had heard tell of a Roman who kept himself so busy at night he slept the day away.
The Roman peered at me across the table. “Should I know you, good sir? I have been here several months and rarely receive unexpected visitors. Do we, perhaps, have mutual friends?”
I lifted my shoulders and shrugged. “If we do not now, I suspect we soon will. As for the other…,” I simply smiled, “it is always good to know men of the land you mean to conquer.”
The Roman laughed, giving the table a hearty thud. “It is true, it is true. Though I, myself, shall not be doing the conquering. I will leave that task to those better suited for it.” He glanced upward at Antonius, and smiled. I felt Antonius relax behind me; he must have been pleased by the compliment.
“Ah!” the Roman grinned at the arrival of our wine, “drink!” Before he grasped his goblet and lifted it to his mouth, I smelt the blood and knew Antonius and Nikolaos had not judged wrongly.
I made a show a smelling the air, and my wine. “I must say, signore, your wine has a far more pleasant aroma than my own.” It was true, there was no scent of blood in my own goblet. Still, I took a sip. It did not taste bad nor did it effect me, either in intoxication or sustenance.
The Roman’s eyes narrowed. “You would prefer this vintage?” he asked. I nodded. He reached his hand out, palm up, to retrieve my goblet. With a sharp gesture his slave returned. “Bring another as you have for me,” he commanded, his eyes never leaving my face. “My apologies, signore, it appears I have misjudged you. My name is Avitus Valerius.”
I smiled and nodded my head at his introduction. “I am Decentius,” I replied.
Valerius raised a brow as he sipped his wine. “Just… Decentius?”
I inclined my head, “Yes. I have not picked my other name just yet.” The slave returned and set my new goblet in front of me. I sniffed deeply; the scent of grapes and chestnut was obvious, the scent of blood rose slowly from the cup as if it knew how to create anticipation. I thought of Antonia as I sipped; it calmed me. The wine and blood merged on my tongue, bursting together. When I swallowed, I felt both take effect.
I had closed my eyes in enjoyment, and when I opened them I found Valerius smiling at me, his hands wrapped around the rim of his goblet. “Enjoyable?” he asked.
“Yes,” I began to reply, when I felt my body sway forward of its own accord. Antonius grunted and grabbed my tunic by the collar, hoisting me up. Valerius simply smiled and stared.
I would never have shown Valerius my powers upon first meeting, or any meeting, but I would not be caught by this man tonight. It was fortunate Antonius was holding my tunic, for when I faded to shadow, he came with me.
All I heard as we slipped away into the night was Valerius screaming in frustration at his slaves.
I did not emerge from the shadow state until we were back in my rooms. Valerius would have men in the city, and though they would be able to track a man I doubted they could track a shadow.
Antonius collapsed to the floor gasping and gagging when I released him from the shadow. I simply walked from the room and called for a slave to assist me; it had been a long journey back. Once I had fed, I returned to see Antonius’ progress. The shadow state was meant only for one, there was no air to breathe and no way to move; Antonius had been trapped.
He was sitting on the floor breathing deeply when I entered the room. His lip curled at my arrival. “That was completely unnecessary, Dio. There were only 20 men in the place, and perhaps two servanti. I could have easily taken them and then we would have destroyed the threat. Now he will have time to strengthen himself.”
I had not taken a count of those in the room, my focus had been on the Roman. “You believe you could take 20 men yourself, and two servanti, without assistance?”
Antonius shrugged, “Why not? Theophilus wasn’t that hard, and he was older and wiser than any of them.” His tone dripped contempt.
“And how do you know that?” I asked.
Antonius looked disgusted at the question. “Sicily’s been around forever, just like Umbrae. Rome is new. And that Senator-in-training was even newer. He tried to control me; he couldn’t.”
I didn’t keep the surprise from my face, and Antonius grinned. “When he praised you,” I replied.
Antonius nodded. “I felt him pushing into my mind but he had no finesse, no style. So I just stared blankly ahead until he thought he had me.”
I smiled. “It appears all those practise sessions were not in vain.” I pondered Antonius’ notion of taking out Valerius and his slaves; it would send a powerful message. I needed Rome to respect us if we were to retain power once they conquered. But slaughter was more likely to illicit retaliation than respect. “We will wait to respond to his trickery. First we must know who he is, and then we will know what Rome will do.”
Antonius refrained from snorting, merely rolling his eyes. I ignored him. “Tomorrow we meet with Signore Agapios. If Astyanax is correct, Agapios may know more about Valerius; then we will have a place to begin our plans.” At this Antonius grinned.
The rest of our night passed in training; having once been taken by surprise, I did not wish to repeat the experience. Antonius had improved greatly since we last sparred. I would need to test him more often, not to improve his performance, but so that I knew his abilities. I would not rely on the power of my blood to contain Antonius.
When I arose the next evening, Nikolaos and Antonious were standing at the foot of my bed. Nikolaos twisted his hands in front of him, chewing his lip and glancing toward were a window might have been, if there had been any windows. I sat up.
“What has happened?” I asked.
Nikolaos squeaked, and Antonius looked at him, disgusted. “They have been searching for you; for us,” Antonius said. “Nikolaos heard them when he went out to obtain supplies for our landlord. And I saw them as they canvassed the street. Valerius’ men.”
I rose and donned my tunic. “Are they still outside?”
“No,” Nikolaos muttered. “The landlord sent them off.”
I raised a brow, looking from Nikolaos to Antonious. Antonius nodded. “A smarter man than he would appear, and exceptionally adept at lying.”
I had barely spoken to the inn’s master, this landlord Antonius spoke of. That would have to be remedied. If Umbrae favoured him, perhaps he was more than simply a discreet businessman. Especially if Antonius praised his skills.
When entered the dining hall, small that was, the master of the inn was waiting. He rose, bowing slightly as I entered the room. I noted that Antonius simply sauntered past me to a waiting tray of food that smelt remarkably bloody, while Nikolaos hovered. “Go, eat,” I said, gesturing Nikolaos toward the tables, “we have much to talk about.”
Smiling, the landlord lead me to a small room off the dining hall. There was a window with salty breeze flowing through, a desk, assorted scrolls, and a chest I assumed to contain the inn's resources. He moved to the side of the room, squeezed against the wall, and gestured to me that I might take the chair behind the desk. I smiled and shook my head. He moved behind his desk but remained standing, his hands holding the back of the chair.
I studied him for a long minute, his dark hair, pale eyes, the calm manner in which he held himself. "You protected us," I said finally.
He spoke slowly. "My name is Timotheus Procurius, and I am a friend of the Umbrae."
My brow rose.
"Signuri Umbrae, and those born of his line," he continued. I stared at him, but he simply smiled. "I know you are of his line, Signuri Decentius, because of when you arrived and who came with you. Though you have show it since, as well."
This was true. I had fed from his readily provided slaves, and coast into the inn as nothing more than shadow.
"And why are you our friend?" I asked. And was he truly our friend, or merely the friend of Umbrae himself?
Procurius chin rose. "Because you protect us. Because he cured me, and my wife. Because you need friends in the daylight."
A great chuckle erupted from my chest causing Procurius to lose his hold upon the chair and stumble backwards. "Very true, my friend," I replied, "very true indeed."
Procurius explained the Signuri Umbrae had been staying at the inn when both he and his fell ill. The illness had barely manifested before Umbrae left for whatever his business was, and when he had returned days later both Procurius and his wife had been near their deathbeds. Their mouths full of sores, they had been unable to eat and barely able to drink. Their bodies had begun to consume themselves for want of other food.
When Umbrae had returned he and his servant, Theophilus, had performed a ritual to cast out the illness. Procurius could not remember its exact nature, his mind had been delusional from lack of food, but it involved blood; Umbrae’s blood, Theophilus’ blood, and the blood of Procurius and his wife. Something had been done to it, a mixture with herbs and wine, and Umbrae had tipped it gently first down Procurius’ throat and then down his wife’s.
They were well by the next morning, and had not been sick a day since. Even the sickness of aging had slowed, and the same was true of their children. That was why they had all moved so far away. People could say ‘Oh, Procurius has always been there’ and dismiss it, but a family who was never sick, and who all aged so slowly would have drawn notice.
“It is alright, though,” he finished. “They send us letters, and sometimes the grandchildren come to work for a few seasons. Soon it will be the great-children.” He smiled.
“But I am not Signuri Umbrae,” I said.
Procurius shook his head, smiling. “It does not matter. We have both been gifted by his blood; we are a kind of family.”
I nodded, understanding. Family was family, always. “I have business tonight,” I said, “but do let me know if they return.” Procurius nodded.
I returned to the dining hall to see Antonius smiling lasciviously at Procurius’ wife, who was cleaning the tables. “Antonius,” I said, “it is time to leave.” With a last unpleasant smile for the woman, Antonius rose and marched out. I moved across the room toward her, and she turned shyly to meet my eyes. “Has he harmed you?” She shook her head. “Do tell me if he becomes untoward. I will remind him of his manners.” She nodded slowly.
As I walked out to find the stable, Antonius, and Nikolaos, I saw Procurius give a nod of thanks.
In the stable I found Nikolaos doggedly inspecting the contents of our cart, while Antonius twitched impatiently at the reigns. “Is everything in order?”
“Yes!” Antonius replied.
I looked to Nikolaos. He nodded slowly. “Everything is here, Dio.”
“Good,” I replied, “then come aboard and let us go meet Signore Agapios.” I stepped up into the front of the cart, watching as Antonius’ eyes widened. It was not a step he could have made, and yet I did not leap, merely lifted one leg and rose the needed distance; a subtlety Antonius was unlikely to have considered.
Nikolaos crouched in the back as the cart clattered across the roads and down to the pier; back, once again, to the dark dank hole of the Fisherman’s Diner. It had not improved; the door was still soft with rot, and the place still stank of mold. Its only redeeming quality was the multitude of shadows that it held.
I moved through these shadows, Antonius stalking behind me, eyes alert for Yannis. I spotted him, alone, in a corner lit only by moonlight. Antonius grunted behind me and moved toward him; I stayed where I was.
The merest movement of Yannis’ eyes told that he registered Antonius approach; not that Antonius was particularly stealthy about it. He dragged a chair screeching across the floor and lent towards Yannis.
“I thought you said your master was going to be here,” Antonius growled.
The edges of Yannis’ mouth curled. “I thought your master was going to be here,” he replied.
Antonius let out a grunt of approval. “When he is certain everything is in order,” he said. This was why I bothered to keep Antonius around, truly. He was a violent, hot tempered maniac but he knew how to play the games of power.
Yannis sipped the drink in front of him, smiling and casting his eyes about the room. I wondered if his master was simply waiting, as I was. “What is there to put in order?” Yannis asked as he set his drink back on the table.
Antonius shrugged, quick thinking not his forte. “Things,” he muttered.
“Things?” Yannis cocked his head expectantly.
Antonius turned, his chair scrapping the floor, and looked around the room. “Like how many of these are yours,” he replied, chin moving to encompass the handful of men present. Of course that would be his worry; how many must he kill to escape.
Yannis smiled, unaware of Antonius true thoughts, and nodded. “Only the owner,” he replied. “Though I have met several of the others, I would hardly call them ‘mine’.”
I could not see the skeptical expression Antonius made, but I could hear his soft snort of disbelief. Myself, I was not much worried by those present. Unless there were an army hidden in the small kitchen, we could escape easily if need be. What I wanted to know was why this place had been chosen. But that was not a question Antonius would ask.
“Fine then,” Antonius muttered ungraciously, “bring him out.”
Now it was Yannis turn for a skeptical expression.
Antonius leaned back in his chair, rolling and cracking his neck. “You’ve met my master, you’ve picked the place and time, so you go first,” he said. A remarkably astute analysis; I wondered if my mind had touched his without intention.
“Fine,” Yannis nodded, and the door from the kitchen swung open.
Signore Agapios walked through the door followed by a pair of mortals, one of whom looked a little pale. They were both male, and looked more like than traders, but then, he was Greek. The odd part was that the pale one had red hair; it appeared Signore Agapios liked exotic slaves. The man himself, however, was unremarkable. Short, somewhat plump, with tan skin and dark hair, Signore Agapios looked unremarkable. That worried me.
Signore Agapios walked to the table, scanning the room as he went. As his eyes passed over where I stood in the darkness, a confused furrow lined his brow, but his gaze continued on. Yanni rose as his master approached; Antonius did not. Antonius looked up at Agapios, and I knew his gaze flicked to the two slaves flanking him, evaluating them for threat.
Agapios stood behind the chair Yanni had vacated, sneering down at Antonius. It was clear he would not sit while Antonius did, and Antonius knew this. Antonius leaned back in chair, stretching comfortably, and watched as the annoyance on Agapios face grew. I would have chuckled if it would not have ruined the effect.
I stepped from the shadows, smiling, and placed my hand upon Antonius’ shoulder as I reached the table. Signore Agapios smiled at my approach, but not at the gesture. Antonius rose without further prompt. I waited.
“Signore Decentius?” Agapios inquired.
“Let us sit,” and he did so.
Across the table from him, I found Signore Agapios’ appearance no more threatening than I had from across the room. He smiled, slapping the table and sending his red-haired slave for drinks. Then he stared openly across the table at me. His eyes scanned my face, while his brows and mouth wrinkled in thought. I kept my own expression neutral, and as warm as I could. I could feel Antonius smirking behind me. When I looked up, Yanni was eyeing me skeptically. I nodded minutely at Yanni’s cocked brow and returned my face to its usual controlled blankness; Agapios appeared not to notice.
“So, Signore Decentius, Yanni tells me you have taken over for old Signore Umbrae, not that Theophilus fellow,” Agapios began.
I heard Antonius chuckle softly behind me. “Indeed I have,” I replied. “Theophilus believed himself more important than he was. He has been taught the error of his ways.” There was a loud crack behind me as Antonius flexed his knuckles. While Agapios and Yanni stared in silence, the red-haired slave returned with our drinks. I did not pick mine up.
Agapios smiled, nodding towards Yanni. “I have heard of your troubles with the Roman.” As my brow rose, he continued, “The man sent his slaves searching all over town, a most noisy affair and very hard to ignore.” Agapios chuckled, and Yanni smiled, “You would think a Roman would have a greater sense of decorum, would you not?”
I returned Agapios’ smile, and nodded. “You would indeed. Perhaps this one is not as learned as his countrymen.” Agapios guffawed, slapping the table soundly and causing both our drinks to spill.
The red-haired slave leaned over and cleaned the table with his tunic. Agapios cast him a sloppy smile before turning to me, arms wide. “Please, Signore Decentius, do not think I am that Roman. You are free to choose whichever drink you prefer. Or none at all, if that is your wish.”
With a mental nudge to Antonius, I lifted the mug in front of me and drank. It was nothing more than it seemed; wine laced with blood. Rice, full bodied wine tasting of grapes and oak, laced with bright, youthful blood.
Agapios drained the remainder of his wine in one gulp, banging his mug on the table when he finished. “You have brought our goods?” he said, preliminaries clearly over.
I nodded. “If you wish, Antonius can take Yanni to the wagon now. Or we can go together.”
Agapios waved an idle hand in Yanni’s direction. “Let them do it. I have seen the goods from your estate before, unless much has changed I am not worried.”
I bowed at Agapios suggestion. “Antonius, take Yanni to the wagon.” I did not see Antonius’ response, only heard his grunt of annoyance at being ordered about. As though he were something other than my property. “They shall be gone awhile,” I said as Antonius and Yanni’s footsteps echoed out the door.
Agapios leaned forward across the table, his expression no longer jovial. “Now that they are occupied, shall we begin the true negotiations?” he smiled.
It was my turn to chuckle. “We can,” I replied, raising my eyes to the two slaves still hovering behind Agapios, “shortly.” With a nod and a glint in his eye, Agapios waved them away. “What is it you think we are negotiating for?” I asked.
He held his smile as the footsteps of his slaves retreated and they disappeared into the kitchen. It was us, and a few mortals, alone. “Power,” he replied. “Followers. And...” he waved his hand airily, encompassing everything around us.
I bit my cheek to keep from completing his sentence, to keep from telling him what it was I wanted. Not that it truly mattered; if we were negotiating, he would find out soon enough.
Agapios simply grinned at my recalcitrance, and went on. “I know that Greece, and I, shall soon loose power over Sicily. I am not a fighter, but Rome’s ferocity is known. What I seek, is an ally.”
I pursed my lips and considered. “An ally? To ally with a Greek in a Sicily soon to be dominated by Romans could be deadly. What would you need of this ally?”
“Information,” Agapios replied. “I should scarcely expect risk of life and limb,” he smiled. “Information regarding Greece. Plans, acquisitions, trade; anything overheard.”
It was simple enough. I nodded. “Have you a means of communication?”
Agapios nodded, waving his hand dismissively. “Yes, yes. Signore Umbrae provided us with one of his birds long ago. He was keen on information himself.”
I chuckled. “I suspect he was. Very well, information it is. For us both.”
“Excellent!” Agapios punched the air enthusiastically. “To allies!” he smiled, raising his cup. I raised mine, and they clunked together.
I did hope his empty goblet was not a sign of things to come.
He came precisely when Fabricius said. It was fortunate I awoke early that evening, for it meant I was truly ready for his arrival. Bathed, scented, and dressed in a deep red stola that showed only the tops of my breasts, this time.
Fabricius had come with him, opening the door and smiling at Diamantina who stood inside to greet them. How do I know? I watched from the shadows; it is important to know your client. Fabricius’ master stepped through the doorway, head high, and looked around. He barely glanced at Diamantina, though she curtsied low before him and I noticed Fabricius admiring her cleavage. “Charming,” the Aemilius Vita drolled, “now where is Donna Antonia?”
There was nothing special about this man’s appearance, though he was taller than average. The nose, the tint of his cheeks, the slight curl to his auburn hair; all said Roman. His stature would have told me he was of the aristocracy if the toga wrapped around him hadn’t made that unnecessary.
Diamantina remained with her head down, but I saw the glint of her eyes peering upward through her lashes. “She is preparing for your arrival, signore. If you wish, I can escort you to her room. Or bring her to you in the salon.”
A slight shift of Vita’s head was all the notice he gave to Diamantina. “Bring her to me, then,” he replied, and strode toward the salon.
When Diamantina reached the top of the stairs, I stood waiting for you. She smiled. “You heard, Signora?”
I grinned in reply. “I did. If you wish to entertain his man, feel free. It is a taxing duty, however. You may wish assistance.”
She nodded. The nature of Fabricius and his master was known to all the brothel, it did not pay to have my staff taken unaware. “I shall gather those girls who have not been requested tonight. We will make certain he is entertained.”
I patted her shoulder, then went to met this Roman.
Aemilius Vita stood in front of the window. He had drawn the blinds and now stood in the pale light afforded by the moon and stars admiring the view of street. No lamps were lit, and the light glared around him leaving his features dark. I thought again of Decentius.
“Aemilius Vita, I presume?” I watched as he turned toward, the faint line of his chin moving up and down as he took in my attire. “Would you like to sit?” I asked, moving toward the lounge.
As he moved from the window I saw his smile. It was playful and warm, inviting really. An odd sort of man, if was truly one of us. “Buona sera, Signora Antonia,” he purred. “Fabricius has told me tales.”
I smiled. “Has he? Such an indiscrete man. You should do something about him.” I leaned back and sat on the edge of the lounge.
Vita was not fooled. He came to stand beside me, forgoing the lounge and making certain I must still look up at him. “Indeed, I should. The question,” he took my chin in his hand tilting it upward, “is whether I should reward him or punish him.” His finger traced my cheekbone, his wrist smelling faintly of oil and lemon.
I leaned my head into his hand. “That depends on whether your needs are as simply met as his, Signore.”
Vita laughed, I had not expected that. He tossed back his head and the sound exploded from him, rocking him where he stood. “Oh Antonia, I think I shall have to reward him after all.” He patted my shoulder as he came to sit on lounge, leaning softly against my legs. “But we have things to discuss. Other than Fabricus and his discretion.” He smiled, his fingers running up and down my thigh.
“Do we?” I murmured.
Again, the laughter. This time a low chuckle that vibrated all the way down his arm raising the hairs on my thigh. “Of course, my discrete one. Not any woman could... deal so well with my slave. It takes someone special.” A smile hovered at the edge of his mouth awaiting my response.
“’Special’? I haven’t heard that, oh, since last night.” I grinned as the smile on his Vita’s face grew.
“Ah, but when was the last time you heard it in the full light of the noon day sun?” he asked, now twirling the ends of my hair in his other hand.
“It has been awhile,” I acknowledged.
“As I thought,” he nodded. “It is a thing I truly miss.” His hands stopped their fiddling as his mind focused in memory. “What do you miss, Donna?” His eyes caught mine, the question filled with a weight only we two would know.
“Flowers,” I answered. “They do not bloom at night, no matter how many candles you surround them with.”
Vita nodded in sympathy. “I have heard others say the same. It may please you to know that several Roman thinkers are working on a way to solve that.”
I sat up, intrigued. “Truly? With the myriad of responsibilities in Rome, you have men spending time on flowers?”
“Men, and women too. We,” the emphasis was clear, “are not divided as the mortals are. When there are no children to care for, and strength comes to all, what is the point of such division?” His hands had resumed their activities.
I smiled. “That is a great piece of wisdom, indeed.” I found myself intrigued by this man who laughed aloud and thought so clearly. I placed a hand on his neck and drew it slow upward, massaging that perplexing mind.
Vita was a pleasant conversationalist; subtle in both mind and movement. Quite the opposite of his slave. I went to look in on Diamantina after Vita had departed, both she and Cloelie lay naked, exhausted, and sweating in the crumpled bed clothes of the largest room, save mine.
“Go,” I said, “wash. Vita will be coming again tomorrow, and if he brings Fabricius again you will have to find some way to entertain him that won’t make you sleep the day away. I need you two alert in the daylight.”
They nodded limply and rose, sliping their stola on before limping from the room. I rang the bell for Calictus, not sitting as I waited. His reply was prompt. “This needs cleaning.” He scanned the room, nodding. “And you will need feeding. Send this off to be done, then come to my room.” I left for my own room, the sound of sheets rolling in the background.
I had found a girl with more energy to spare than Diamantina or Cloelie, and fed, before Calictus returned. This time he chose to fed from my inner thigh, though he left before doing anything else. Sunrise was far too near, and I could feel the lassitude in my bones. I sank back onto my bed and awaited nightfall.
The last bloody rays of the sun coloured the backs of the curtains when I descended to the salon the next evening. Odd that the sinking of Apollo the healer’s chariot should cause such colours. I waited at the edge of the curtains, watching the wash of light fade from the room around me.
Diamantina and Cloelie bobbed respectfully as they came hurrying in with Calictus trailing in their wake. “Donna,” the three echoed.
I turned from the light. “Yes?”
“The slave, Fabricius visited again today. Apparently his master wishes to take you out tonight,” Diamantina babbled.
“But he will not tell us where!” Cloelie smashed her hands together.
“He was not persuaded by your charms? Or anyone else’s?” I asked. They shook their heads, grimaces marring both their faces. I was not overly surprised; Fabricius’s tastes were not subtle, not the kind to be easily manipulated. That was probably why Vita found him useful. “Well, I shall have to find something suitable, then.”
I returned to my room, the three trailing behind me. As I opened my guardaroba, Calictus bowed his head toward me. “Forgive me, Donna Antonia, from interrupting your preparations, but word has come from Signore Decentius.” I turned to him and raised an inquisitive brow. “He has gone Messana on business and will be coming here when it is done.”
I nodded somewhat absently. Messana was easily a weeks journey, even if Antonius could be persuaded to drive day and night, and this business would take time. Decentius would not be arriving on our doorstep soon.
Aemilius Vita was a man of subtly, and so I chose my clothing likewise. Red is known as the working woman’s colour, but there was more than one shade in my guardaroba. I choose a stola of deep red, nearly the coveted maroon worn by only a few Romans, edged with saffron scrollwork. Nothing so gauche as the short red tunics I had worn when I began this work. I twisted my hair behind me, tying it with matching saffron ribbons to bare my pale neck. I added three bracelets to my wrists; two on the right, one on the left. A little colour on my lips and eyes, and I was finished.
Pale and polished, I was ready when Vita arrived.
“Signora,” he smiled. He raised my hand to his lips, kissed it so softly the bracelets did not even tinkle, and then placed it on my back. “Shall we go?”
I returned his smile. “But of course. Though perhaps you would be willing to tell me where? Just in case my staff need to find me.”
His chuckle was small and self-contained. “Ah, but then it would not be a surprise.”
I placed my hand on his proffered arm, and we walked out. In front of the brothel stood his carruca, painted blue with a silver laurel gracing its sides. The two horses pulling it had been picked for their grey hides, and nearly silver hair. His slave wore a blue tunic with silver embroidery. The only ones who did not match were Vita and I. We reached the side entrance, and Vita and I continued downward. We did not stop until we were almost to the flat of the orchestra. Vita
I looked more closely at Vita and realized that instead of choosing to match his own colours, he had chosen to match mine. His tunic was maroon, though redder than usual. He had chosen silver embroidery to match his own colours, however, instead of the usual gold. But then he had plenty of gold decorating his throat and arms.
“Signora.” Vita held out his hand toward the carruca. I smiled and stepped up, sliding across to the far side. Vita lifted himself in after me and nodded to the slave driving. The whip cracked and we were underway.
We chatted as the carruca wound its way through the city. There was little to see this time of day; a slave with a torch out to pick up the master’s latest whim, men weaving drunkenly on their way home, and goats wandering free their ropes hanging loosely around their necks. It was not until we neared the temple of Dionysus that I knew where we were headed.
“A play, Singore? They haven’t done one at night in ages,” I said.
Vita nodded. “It is unusual. But there is a full moon of significance tonight. Fabricius did not say what the significance was, he simply informed me that there was an event I could attend.”
“Ahh,” I nodded in reply. “It seems he is full of useful information, your Fabricius.”
Just outside the temple was a small stabling area. We stopped, and Vita assisted me from the carruca. “Wait here,” he said to his slave, and guided me downslope towards the theatron. There were several well worn paths. As we walked along the side of the amphitheatre, I saw that someone had been generous to the priests; where there were once seats of dirt, several rows now had seats of stone.
The side entrance had a carved relief of Dionysus sporting with satyrs and nymphs. I would have lingered to admire it, but other playgoers were coming down the slope behind us. “This way,” Vita said, gently pulling my arm. We continued downslope; Vita did not stop until we reached the row of stone seats behind those reserved for the priests. “This will do nicely,” he smiled.
I scanned the audience as sat down; Vita’s smile was the only one I saw.
“Greetings, fair mortals, on this most illustrious of evenings,” Dionysus began. “You have gathered here to see a spectacle rarely beheld by mortal eyes.” He strode about the stage, jerking his head to look out toward the audience every few steps. “Few of you are worthy of such great a gift on your own, it seems, so before we begin, there must be a blessing.”
One of the wine robed priests stepped forward, and I heard the sounds of rumbling from the edge of the theatre. Two more priests appeared, rolling a large cask of wine toward the stage. “Tonight we give thanks to Dionysus for the spectacle we are about to see, and hope it pleases him. Drink, you wretched mortals and be raised for viewing, that you might better comprehend his madness!”
At this the audience members sprang to their feet and darted towards the priests with the keg. I chuckled, and noted that Vita and I were among the few madmen. I peered toward those calm folk nearest us, wondering if they too were not mortal.
Vita stood, offering me his arm. “Shall we taste what this god has to offer? I confess, I wonder if it is as tasty as other immortal food.” His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes, and I laughed.
“I am doubtful,” I replied, “but I confess curiosity as well.” I took Vita’s arm and we strode towards the mass of mortality huddled around the wine keg. It was amusing to watch as they parted for us, barely seeming aware that we approached yet instinctively moving to allow us room to pass.
“Two,” Vita said when we reached the priests. They scrambled for glasses, picking up not the rude clay vessels that were dolled out to the others, but two sparkling silver ones. I noted a few more of the silver cups among the chaos. A good way to find the others who had remained calm for future reference.
We stood amidst the renewed chaos, admiring our silver cups and smiling at each other. I held Vita’s gaze as I ran a finger around the rim of the cup. He chuckled, then sipped his wine. I sipped my own. It was neither horrid, nor wonderful, but that acceptable mediocrity that many among the throng would be unfamiliar with.
Vita raised a brow, nodding toward me.
I shrugged a single shoulder. “Acceptable,” I murmured. He nodded in response.
Our tastes taken, we wove our way back to our seats through the parting throng. I refrained from laughing at their antics, but I noticed Vita’s shoulders shaking as we passed by a couple who seemed to have spilled their wine upon each other in their haste. Now they were wrapped together trying to lick each drop of wine from the other’s skin. I was sure Dionysus was pleased by their casual ecstasy.
Once we were seated, Vita began to look about as he sipped. He dipped his head in acknowledgement occasionally, and smiled even more often. It was difficult to follow where he looked, but I caught at least three men bowing or nodding in his direction. Most were older, with decorated tunics that spoke of rich merchants or low nobles, but one was young and plainly dressed. He interested me far more than the men of obvious power. He did not look Greek, his hair was light and his skin pale. I wondered if he was someone’s slave.
Vita glanced over at the throng milling about the wine keg, and chuckled. I turned to see what amused him. The two who had been licking the wine from each other were now having sex there in the middle of the auditorium. Half the throng had stopped to watched, some pouring their wine on the ground in amazement, some savouring both the wine and the spectacle. The other half was studiously avoiding the area, neither moving nor looking towards it. I laughed, too.
“Do you think there will be any true show this evening, or is this it?” Vita asked.
I shook my head. “This is a true honour to Dionysus, surely, but I suspect the priests have more up their sleeves.”
“Priests usually do,” he replied.
We finished our wine. The ecstatic screams of the copulating couple rang in our ears, as everyone else seemed to fall silent. Vita moved closer to me, and wrapped his free arm around my shoulder. I leaned against him.
As the orgiastic cries faded, the last of the throng returned to their seats and the priests began to roll away the empty keg. The priest in the white robe, the one who was embodying Dionysus, returned to the stage. “Ah, but that was wonderous spectacle! It warms my cock to see such enthusiasm! I hope you have some left for the show!” And with that, one of the other priests sounded a large gone and the true show began.
It was not nearly as spectacular as the pre-theatre activities, but it was amusing. There was a story of a boy driven mad by his lust for his father’s new wife. The priest who played the wife was pretty enough, but his hesitance at the husband touches, and his fumbling with the lusty son were far more awkward than any true woman. But then, I doubted this boy had known a true woman. Like many Greeks, he was more worried about the attentions of his patrons than practicing for the wife he would one day have.
Vita chuckled when the son began to seduce his stepmother. He sipped his wine and pulled me into his lap. The people beside us barely shifted in their seats, they seemed to find the action on stage far more thrilling than Vita did.
I slid my hands up his legs, lifting the bottom edge of his tunic slightly, before settling more comfortably onto his lap and his fully engorged penis. I spun my own wine in its cup as I worked my hips in circles.
Vita gasped and clutched his wine tighter. It was lucky he did not have one of the clay cups or it would have shattered under the force of his grip. I felt his efforts to calm himself as I continued, slowly and steadily, in circles on his lap. He did not have Decentius’ level of self control, but he managed well enough, at least until he finished his wine.
Once the wine was done, Vita only had the theatre in front of him to distract from my efforts, and its themes did not help. As the boy prostrated himself at his stepmother’s feet begging her to let him make love to her, Vita slipped his hand under my skirt. My legs were already spread, and his fingers moved quickly to my mound. Unfortunately for him, this only made my movements faster.
Perhaps the boy who played the wife did a better job than I give him credit for, as Vita grabbed me and began to thrust forcefully just as the boy began to scream in what was supposed to be pleasure, but sounded far more like pain.
“Will you scream as loud as him?” Vita growled in my ear.
I chuckled. “No.”
He tried. Yes, Vita tried very hard to make scream. His hands went mad on my mound and nipples, and he sucked my throat until it was nearly as red as my dress, but I just sighed and let out a soft chuckle.
All his previous self control was gone. Vita pounded me until the end of the show. He did not stop until those near us stood to applaud. Then he let himself come and dumped me off his lap. I stood and applauded like all the rest, as did Vita moments later.
As we left, we passed the priests who had been acting. I smiled at the boy who had been playing the wife. “Come by sometime and see me. I’ll show you how a real woman acts.”
He blinked several times, and blushed, before muttering, “If my patron allows.”
Before I could further discomfort the boy, Vita grabbed my ass and began steering me out of the amphitheater. When we reached the carruca, he pulled me into his lap once more. It was fortunate his slave was well trained, as Vita pounded me all the way back to the brothel. “To the back,” he said to his slave as we drew near.
Vita did not stop when the carruca did, but lifted me up keeping himself fully inside me. Only Benedetta was in the kitchen when he burst through the door carrying me in front of him like some sort of personal masthead. He took the stairs three at a time, and went straight to my room. Bent over my bed, I continued to receive Vita’s pounding.
When he had come once again, he sat softly beside me upon my bed. “Forgive me, Signora, for my horrid manners. It appears Dionysus has infected me with his especial madness.”
I bent my head demurely. “Dionysus seemed to have a strong effect this evening.”
“True, but it is no excuse for failing to serve you as a proper man should,” Vita replied.
“The night is yet young,” I said.
“Indeed,” said Vita, and he smiled. He lifted of first his tunic, then ran his hands slowly up my thighs to lift off my stola. Perched above me, he smiled softly before thrusting into me. This time he moved slowly, and his mouth moved in concert with his thrusts. Lips and tongue tracing my throat, my breasts, my nipples, and finally opening my mouth with his. When our tongues met, he began to move faster.
He was good, I would give him that. When I let out a soft grunt of pleasure, he slowed his thrusts until I grabbed his ass with both hands and knees to force him in, hard. There was no reason for me not to enjoy my work.
We both enjoyed ourselves, several times over, before the earliest of morning birds began to chirp outside my window.
Vita looked up from where he knelt between my legs. “It would seem it is time for me to be going, Signora. It would not do to be here while I sleep.”
I propped myself up on my elbows. “It would not. Your man is likely still out back. Will you need assistance in getting safely home?” I had not paid enough attention to his carruca to notice if there was space to protect from sunlight.
Vita shook his head. “It is well in hand, Signora. I thank you for your concern.” He rose and donned his tunic. I stayed where I was as his eyes were resting squarely on my loins, and his tongue was licking the taste of me from his lips. “I shall return two nights hence. I will wish to talk, then, though there may be time for... other things.” He smiled and met my eyes. “I am most pleased to have so thoroughly made your acquaintance, Antonia.”
I rose and kissed him softly on the cheek. “And I yours, Vita.”
I arose the next evening to see Calictus waiting at the foot of my bed. He was biting his beautiful full lip, and peering anxiously towards me. “Is something the matter?” I asked. I sat up, the sheets puddling in my lap, and looked at Calictus anxious face.
“Diamantina is gone, Donna. She went out with a client last evening while you were away and has not returned.” He returned to biting his lip, his eyes drawn and pitiful.
“Gone? Are we certain? It is not unheard of for a client to keep a girl for a whole day, or even several. Does anyone know who this client was?” I stood up and began to dress. Calictus did not bother to look away from my naked body. It did distract him from his nervousness as his eyes moved across my breasts and loins. He stopped biting his lip and licked them instead.
“No,” he shook his head then moved quickly toward me, placing his hands on the back of my knees and his head close to my loins. “I beg forgiveness for not finding out more.” His hands moved to open my legs, and I let him. He was extremely skillful with his tongue, and it was pleasing when a man begged. When I came, it soaked his face but he did not mind. He lifted me back to my bed and begged with his eyes for more. I nodded. “Oh Donna, you are supreme!” There was no praising Eros from him, all his praise was reserved for me.
When he finished, and fell onto the bed at my side, Calictus looked at me with yet another question. “Later,” I answered. “First tell me more about what has happened with Diamantina. Has anyone gone to look for her?”
His eyes widened. “We would not dare! Donna might think we were in league with the ungrateful Diamantina.”
I snorted. “I am not that stupid,” I replied. “Who was awake when she left?”
Calictus lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling with his eyes squinted in thought. “I saw her leave. Cloelie was out in the garden, so she may have seen something. Perhaps not, there was a lot of thumping in the kitchen.”
“So Benedetta was awake, then?” I said, stating what he should have realized on his own. Calictus may have been skilled in the bedroom, but it seemed he lacked the same attention to detail outside of it.
“Yes!” He blinked in surprise, then nodded eagerly. “Of course, yes. She was already awake starting on the morning baking.”
I stood and donned my discarded stola. If Benedetta had started the morning baking, that gave a better clue to when Diamantina had left. “Are you certain she left before I returned? Did you notice when I returned?”
Calictus blushed. “Truly I missed your arrival.”
I was not surprised. Though I had been concentrating on maintaining the odd position Vita held me in, I was almost certain that there had been no one up. Except Benedetta in the kitchen. Had she been up the whole night?
I grabbed a belt from my guardaroba, and fastened it as I strode out the doorway. Calictus scrambled in my wake. I heard the fumbling sounds of clothes before his footsteps rushed to pace behind me.
Benedetta was in the kitchen stirring a pot over the fire when we arrived. “Buona sera, Donna,” she said as we entered.
“Buona sera, Benedetta,” I replied. “Did you see Diamantina leave last evening?”
“Si, Donna. But it was this morning, not last evening.” I nodded to her to continue. “Diamantina went out to get some fruit for the morning meal, she said. But there was a fellow with a small carruca waiting for her.”
“How do you know this?” I asked. The kitchen window was small, and there was a large bush on the outside of it.
“I heard the carruca when it arrived, Donna, and went to see if it was a delivery. He shooed me away saying he was waiting for someone more important.”
I had to chuckle at that. The lady of the kitchen was an extremely important member of the household, though few enough realized it, fewer still if one was only counting the men. “Was he someone you knew?”
Benedetta nodded slowly. “I know his face, Donna, though not his name. He works for Dio Catalano.”
“And where would I find Dio Catalano’s home?” I asked.
“Near the docks, Donna. I have not been there myself, but Valentina and Eudokia have served him before.” Benedetta was still stirring her pot. She had glanced at me throughout our conversation, but focused most of her attention on her work.
I stepped toward her, and placed my hand on hers lifting it and the spoon from the pot. There was an odd smell emanating from it. It had been many years since I had eaten for more than show, but this did not smell like food to me. “What is in your pot, Benedetta?”
She blushed and began to stammer as she backed away from me. “It is just a soup, Donna. Nothing fit for your delicate tastes.”
“And what is it you know of my tastes?” I asked.
Benedetta’s eyes darted left and right. A faint trickle of moonlight shown through the window casting moving shadows between the branches of the bush outside. Finally Benedetta closed her eyes, and clasped her hands as in prayer. “That they are not ... human, Donna,” she murmured.
“Oh?” I said.
At this she looked up at me, her eyes flitting from one point to the next, searching my face for some telltale sign. I may not have Decentius’ self control, but I knew how to look simply interested without betraying anything more.
“I do not know, exactly, Donna, but you have not eaten in this kitchen, and no one has brought you food. Yet Calictus eats twice his usual, and he is the only one you see near meal times. And there was ... that man.” She shuddered at the memory.
Antonius, I presumed. He was the only man I knew to elicit such a universal reaction of distaste. “Which man?”
Benedetta stared at the floor, her jaw clenching, and her hands twisting. “That one who came ... ahead of you. Who ... dealt with Donna Euphemia.”
“Dealt.” I snorted. “Antonius does not ‘deal’ with things, my dear Benedetta. He simply growls, hits, or kills. There is little dealing with Antonius.”
Benedetta bobbed in agreement. “As Donna says. Yet his methods of persuasion were not unfamiliar. But there was something ... different about them, still.”
No, they would not be unfamiliar. Antonius was hardly the only violent man in the world, and a bordello could scarcely afford to turn away every man who was. “The only difference with Antonius,” I said, “is that he is far more effective.”
Benedetta looked at me for several moments, and then slowly shook her head. “That it not true, Donna. He is....” She paused, and whispered the final word, “evil.”
I could not help it. I laughed. “Yes, I suppose that is one way to describe Antonius. Though I think ‘evil’ is a compliment to him, truly. He is not smart enough to be truly evil. He merely reacts with violence and very little thought.”
“And yet you control him,” Benedetta said.
I was perplexed.
“He came at your behest to gain control of the bordello,” she continued when I did not reply. “He murdered Donna Euphemia for you.”
I shook my head. “No, Benedetta, he did not do those things for me. He did them because he enjoys violence. He was sent merely to retrieve my belongings. I suspect Euphemia put up some resistance?” Benedetta nodded. “And then Antonius solved her interference in the only way he knows how.”
“So, you do not control him?” Benedetta asked.
I shrugged, not liking the look of worry on her face. “I control him as any woman controls a man.” I opened my legs and swiveled my hips. “Did not Eupehmia do the same to men of Siracusae when she needed something?”
Benedetta nodded slowly. “But none of them were like him. None had his strength.” She stood up straighter and looked me in the face once again. “And she took her meals with the rest of us.”
I looked about the room for a chair, but there were none. Instead, I leaned against the table I’d seen Benedetta use for preparing vegetables. “Say it, Benedetta, whatever it is you think. I shall try not to be insulted, but it is best you tell me before the idea worms away at your soul.”
At the mention of the word ‘soul’, Benedetta flinched. “Do you have one, Donna? A soul? I do not know how it goes for such as you.”
“Such as what!?” I did not wish to force it out of her, for that would likely make whatever suspicions she had worse, yet this constant vagueness was growing irritating.
The word came scarcely above a whisper. “Dea.” She knelt before me, hands clasped together. Many had knelt before me, but this woman had no lust in her. She stared upward at me, enraptured. “You are Dea Antonia, servant of Dea Aphrodite. You have tamed the evil Antonius, and have been sent to teach us all to spread the joy of Dea Aphrodite.”
I bit my inner lip to keep from laughing. It would not do to mock the utter seriousness of this woman. I could feel Calictus shuffling behind me, and turned to see him kneel, the look upon his face on of happiness and understanding. It appeared he agreed with Benedetta. “Do we not all serve Aphrodite?” I asked, gesturing to the house at large.
Benedetta nodded fervently. “Of course, Dea, but none but you can bend mortals to their will. None but you will sway the men of power to follow the course of love, not greed.”
Again, I nearly laughed. I did not teach love, but lust, and what was lust but greed of the most physical nature? Still, it would not do to break Benedetta’s illusions just now. “And you will help me in this.” I did not make it a question, though it was.
“Yes, Dea Antonia,” Benedetta murmured. I heard Calictus muttering the same words from behind me. Well, I knew well enough what services I wished to put him to. Figuring out what to use Benedetta for would be more complicated.
I paced the kitchen a moment. I thought best when moving. Generally the movement involved sex, but it did not require it, and I did not think Benedetta would enjoy talking to me while I fornicated with Calictus. “Do you know where this Dio Catalano lives? Could you find his home if needed?” Benedetta nodded. “Good. Find it, then return here. If you see Diamantina, tell her I am anxious for her return. Tell her I hope she has enjoyed her time away from the bordello, but there are clients eager for her attentions, and we miss her.” I wished Antonius were here to send after her, but Calictus would do when the time was right.
Benedetta nodded at each thing I said. “I will do it all, Dea, as you wish.” She rose, and took her shawl from the rack near the door. It was not until she was wrapping it around her shoulders that I thought to question her again.
“What is in that pot, Benedetta, truly?”
She smiled softly. “It is only a concoction I was making to honour Aphrodite, Dea. Roses, and lemon peel, orange blossoms and basil. I thought it might make a pleasant perfume.”
I returned her smile. “I am certain it will when you are finished with it. Go.” I shooed her out the door, and she darted swiftly away.
As the door swung shut behind her, I felt Calictus’ hands on my ass. “It is true, Dea, it is true. You are divine. Making love to you is an act of worship.”
I turned, smiling, and pulled off his tunic. “Then you must worship me some more.” And he did.
The evening passed slowly after I finished with Calictus. He had his drink from my thigh and went off for a rest. I decided to spend my free time checking on some of the girls. Several were working this evening. I floated in the shadows from room to room, observing. Some were too far along to tell how much training they had received, other than they had been trained to express their enjoyment very vocally. I could tell that at least one client found this disturbing. He kept flinching each time his girl called out. Others were in the process of seduction; some seducing, and a few being seduced. The two being seduced seemed scared, and I did not think it was an act. They were younger than the other girls. I wondered if they had been newly purchased by Euphemia before her unfortunate incident with Antonious. I had a feeling they were untrained. Though it was possible Euphemia had left them so intentionally. There were men who liked to take young, inexperienced girls, but it was far better for the girls if the inexperience was an illusion.
It seemed Euphemia’s girls were either over eager or underprepared. There were a few that demonstrated some skill, but all needed at least a little polishing. I would have to work on that. Perhaps the house could declare a day of rest for some reason so that I could get the girls properly trained, or started anyways.
The evening passed dully.
When Benedetta returned, Calictus was still sleeping so I heard her out alone.
“I found the house, Dea, but I did not see Diamantina. I talked to some fishmongers who had seen her entering yesterday, and they said they had not seen her leave,” Benedetta said.
“Donna,” I corrected her. It was very flattering to be called ‘Dea’ but it was not a habit I wished to encourage. It might prompt questions. She looked saddened by my correction, so I clarified. “You know who and what I am, and Calictus also, but it is not for everyone to know. I cannot do my duties if people see me as something beyond a mortal. They will lose focus on the lessons I have to teach, and instead worry about me alone.”
Benedetta nodded sagely, as though what I had said was words of wisdom, not something to distract her before she created more problems.
“Do you trust these fishmongers?” I asked.
Benedetta nodded. “I bought from them before we started to talk. They haggled, but were fair in their pricing, and the fish is fresh. The girls shall enjoy it tomorrow.”
I smiled. It was an unusual way to gain the measure of a man, but Benedetta had used what skills she had to good effect. “Did Euphemia send you out to gather information with the food?” She shook her head. “Then you are an intelligent and adaptable woman. I am glad to have one in my household.” She blushed prettily before dropping her hands and head as if in prayer. “Shh, now, none of that. The girls will talk, and everyone will get all confused. Now, when Calictus wakes, tell him how to find this Catalano’s home, and send him out. He is not to do anything rash, simply watch for Diamantina to leave, and see who else comes and goes. I am off to bed. It has been a long evening, dull but for the news you’ve brought me.”
Benedetta nodded at my commands and dismissal. She darted from the sitting room toward the kitchen, while I made my way up to my room. I collapsed on my bed, tired from boredom.
When I awoke the next evening, Benedetta and Calictus were kneeling at the foot of my bed. There was an odd sound, like chanting, before I opened my eyes and began to stretch.
“Dea!” they said in unison.
“Donna,” I corrected softly.
“Donna,” Benedetta continued, “Diamantina has returned.
“Good,” I said, sitting up. I moved to my guardaroba to retrieve this evening’s stola.
“No,” they said.
“I do not think you will say ‘Good’ when you have heard the whole tale, Donna,” Benedetta said.
I slipped the stola over my head, and sat down on my bed to listen. “Why? What has happened?”
“I did as you asked, Donna,” Calictus said from his seated position. “I followed Benedetta’s directions and found the home of this Catalano. He is a ship master of some sort. I believe he designs them for others to build.” Calictus’ face wrinkled in disgust and confusion. “I wandered about the area, talking with the fishmongers and pretending to look at the ships. I did not see Diamantina, but I did see some Romans.”
I sat up straighter.
“I saw that Fabricus fellow. He went inside on his own, and came out with two others who had gone in earlier,” Calictus continued.
“Were they talking with him? Did they go with him, or simply exit the casa together?” I asked.
Calictus nodded. “Yes, Donna, they were, they did. I did not know if I should follow their carruca, and then it moved away so quickly I do not think I could have.”
I shook my head in thought. I needed to tell Calictus more about his abilities. I was almost certain he could have followed that carruca, though they would likely have noticed a man running behind them before too long. “All right. So we know Fabricus, and his master Vita, are talking with someone who designs ships. Well, this is not too unlikely. Rome is trying to conquer the world, after all. But it does not tell me what happened with Diamantina.”
Calictus looked to Benedetta. She nodded, waving her hand at him impatiently. “I did not see her until nearly nightfall. She came out all on her own. There was no one much nearby. All the fishmongers and ship masters had gone home, or gone to eat. There were a few people passing in the street, but not nearly so many as before. She came out....” He stopped. His skin grew pale. It was quite becoming, in fact, but I waited for the rest. “Someone had beaten her, Donna. She was bloody and bruised, looking about. When she saw me, she started toward me, but she fell. When I lifted her, I saw her stola was torn, and her sandals and jewelry gone.”
“And her breathe smells of poison, Donna,” Benedetta said. “I noticed it when I brought her some of the fish soup. She tried to say ‘thank you’ but all that came out was a puff of vile breathe. Poision.”
I nodded. “Take me to her. I will hear more from her.” Calictus and Benedetta looked at each other, and grimaced. “I will help her speak, if needed. There is nothing to fear.”
They nodded. Calictus opened the door and Benedetta lead the way, out of my rooms and downstairs to the hall that contained the girls’ rooms. Benedetta had put her in a large on near the back. Although there were two beds, only the one on which Diamantine lay was occupied. I sat gently on the end of her bed. “Hello Diamantina. It seems you are safely returned to us.” I reached toward her, touching her arm softly.
“Hello Donna,” Diamantina said. Her voice was hoarse and scarcely above a whisper.
I peered closely at her. There were bruises on her throat. Her arms were speckled purple. Her lovely face was a shade of purple darker than most plums. Her hair looked as though it had been cut with a kitchen knife. “Are you well, Diamantina?”
She nodded, slowly. Her head moved stiffly, not with its usual grace. I smelt her breath as she leaned toward me. Benedetta was right; there was definitely something wrong with it. I had eaten many strange things to scent my breath back when I was mortal, but none had produced such a fetid odor. I turned to Benedetta. “Have you given her anything, besides the soup?”
Benedetta shook her head. “I only just got her to eat the soup before it was time for you to wake. I though it best to ... be there when you awoke.”
It was only best if Diamantina did not pay the price for her delay. “Fine. I am awake now. Go and fetch what you think is needful. And do it quickly, she has been through enough today.” Benedetta nodded sharply and darted back through the door. I turned to Calictus. “Leave us.” He looked mutinous. “You may wait outside,” I said. “I shall call if you are needed. Let no one enter save yourself or Benedetta. And let me know if Vita arrives.”
Calictus gave a grave nod and removed himself from the room. The door thudded shut behind him.
I turned to Diamantina. She looked small and scared, not at all her usual provocative self. I moved closer and placed my other hand on her shoulder. “Tell me what happened.”
She nodded and began to cry. “I’m sorry, Donna. I shouldn’t have. I was ... arrogant. I wanted something better. I thought I could do better on my own.”
Fear. Through the pulse points where I touched her was a wash of fear. I was glad to feel it, yet I could have guessed that but her face and tears. The touch of remorse was welcome, but the anger less so. “Why are you sorry? What was it you set out to do?” I asked the questions as softly as I could, trying to conveying an air of curiosity and compassion, not frustration and urgency.
“To leave you,” Diamantina answered. “To leave this place and go somewhere else, somewhere I could make my own way and use my own skills for myself. I thought I knew how to handle. I ... was wrong.” She sobbed.
I held her tightly in my arms, hating whomever had taken away that cocky attitude that once infuriated me. This was not the woman she was meant to be.
After several minutes, Diamantina wiped her eyes, and slowly sat herself up. She nodded in thanks as I moved back to give her a little space, though I still kept ahold of one hand. “I went to Catalano to see if I could ride one of his ships to Rome. I thought I could go there and start anew, and he had been to see me many times. I thought ... I thought he was infatuated with me, like men become sometimes.”
I nodded at her pause.
She sniffed, and continued. “I was wrong. He showed me how wrong I was. He laughed in my face and then took me, there, in front of his men. Then he passed me on to them, one after another after another. I think some had me more than once. It was light before they finished and he had me once again. Then he pushed me to floor and told me to beg. When I started, he told me to shut up and do it properly. I almost didn’t know what he meant, but he thrust his dangling manhood at me before I could ask.”
There was a knock at the door. “It is Benedetta, Donna.”
“Come,” I said.
The door opened slowly, and Benedetta came inside. She was carrying a steaming mug that smelt medicinal. The look she on her face as she knelt beside Diamantina’s bed was so sweet she might have been a mother tending the bedside of her ailing child. “It is not too bad, for a medicine. Drink it all, carro, but not too fast. It is still very hot.”
Diamantina nodded. She held the cup as tightly as she held Benedetta’s gaze. “I’m sorry, Detta. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
Benedetta shook her head dismissively. “I am not in trouble. You ... you may be in trouble. But I think the Donna, I think she might be interested in your report. Maybe it will be worth all the trouble, non?” She looked at me hopefully.
“Perhaps,” I said. “I am especially interested to know if you saw our erstwhile ally while you were being held.”
Diamantina closed her eyes. Her cup shook, but Benedetta steadied her hands before Diamantina could burn herself. “I did, Donna. Up close. He was... he was as insatiable as Antonius.”
I put my head and Diamantina’s shoulder and muttered calming nonsense. I stroked her hair, sending a feeling of calm along with my touch. She breathed deeper and more steadily.
“When they were done with me, they left me naked in a corner. I may have dozed, I’m not certain. They ignored me while they discussed their plans. Fabricius was hiring ships to sneak Romans into Siracusae.”
I nodded. This seemed a reasonable action. Rome was trying to take Sicily from Greece, and then could use all the soldiers they could find. Sneaking soldiers in would be less likely to provoke Greece, and might allow them to get an advantage in numbers without the Greeks being aware. Of course, either way my homeland was due to become a battlefield. “Were there any specifics mentioned? Names of people, or ships?” I asked.
Diamantina shook her head carefully. “No, but it sounded as though they would begin soon. ‘Before the moon turned’ I heard Fabricius say.”
“And was his master’s name mentioned at all?” A thought occurred to me. “Did he come during the daylight, or the nighttime?”
“Daylight,” Diamantina said. “There were no candles lit while they talked, only light through the windows.”
So, it may not even be that Vita knows his plans. I hoped this was so. I rather liked Vita; his thoughtfulness and hidden passions. I’d hate to have to move against him so early on. “You have done well to tell me all this,” I said to Diamantina. “I am glad Calictus was there to assist you. But Diamantina,” I wrapped my hands about hers and the cup, “if you have problems in the future, you will do far better to discuss them with me privately. I wish you no ill, unless you try to harm me or this establishment. If you truly wish to start your own establishment elsewhere, I can teach you the skills you will need.”
Diamantina blinked several times. “Grazie, Donna.” She looked down at her hands. “Euphemia was grooming me as her second, but you already have Cloelie. I did not want to work my way up again.”
“I understand. I could tell you were someone of importance here, Diamantina. I do not cast aside those with skills, unless they make me. Simply learn a little patience, and you will get what you want.” She reminded me of myself, before I had been turned; over eager to break free. If I could help her avoid the mistakes I had made, I would, but only if I had at least some of her loyalty. “I shall leave you with Benedetta, and your tea. Rest, when you can.”
Diamantina nodded, and Benedetta gave me a look of thanks. I smiled at both of them before leaving the room. I collected Calictus from his post, and went to my room to dress myself properly for Vita’s arrival. Unless he had been a distraction from Fabricius’ efforts. Tonight would be most informative. I would have to write Decentius a letter when it was all done.
I dressed and fed Calictus. When he had finished, I asked him, “Calictus, have you noticed any new strengths or skills since you began feeding from me?”
He was silent for several moments. “I am not certain, Dea.” We were alone, so I did not object to the title. “Yesterday, when I was wandering around the docks, there were several times when a worker looked right at me, and then shook his head and looked away. I thought perhaps it was the sun, but I was trying hard to have no one notice me.”
I nodded. “And when they did, some of them forgot.”
“Yes,” Calictus replied.
“That is different from others I have known.” Was there a pattern? Perhaps there was. “But then, your strengths have lain in more subtle places. Perhaps it has simply caused them to grow beyond what they once were.”
“As it caused his strength and anger to grow?” Calictus asked, proving he was far smarter than his quiet exterior made him seem.
“Precisely. I want you to pay attention, to be aware. Something will happen with Fabricius and Vita, and we will need all the strengths we have,” I said.
Calictus nodded. “Will you come to him, or should I send him to you?”
“Let him make the request. We will pretend nothing has changed, and see how he reacts. There is a small possibility he does not know what Fabricius is doing in the daylight. Or not all of it, at least,” I said.
When Calictus has left, I sat at my table and pulled out paper and ink. I wrote to Decentius, telling him what Diamantina had heard. I did not tell him all the details, for they were none of his concern. I put the unfinished letter back in my desk. It’s ending would await my meeting with Vita.
There was a soft rap on my door. “He is here,” Calictus said. “He awaits you in the sitting room.”
I smiled. I suspected Vita would be back to his charming, but largely intellectual self this evening. I was not certain if the priests of Dionysus had put an aphrodisiac in the wine, but it would explain the excesses of the evening, Vita included.
As I approached the sitting room, I heard the sound of voices, then laughter. I paused until the voices resumed and I could identify them. Vita, of course, and Cloelie. I wondered at her presence. Was this part of her attempts to garner Decentius’ favour by stealing Vita’s attention? I had thought she was not truly interested in Decentius, but perhaps she had been trying to fool me as well. She would not be the first servant to try to please two masters in the hopes that at least one would give her what she wanted. Well, it would not be me. She had a long way to go before she was ready.
I twitched aside the tapestry that covered the entryway, and watched as Cloelie swiveled abruptly around. She had been sitting at Vita’s feet with her head is his lap and her hands up his tunic.
“Buona sera, Signora Antonia,” Vita said, rising from his seat and stepping straight across Cloelie as though she were little more than a rug. He lifted my hands to his lips and kissed them gently. “It is good to see you once again. Your servant has been entertaining me while I waited.” He gestured in Cloelie’s direction. She had gathered her skirts, and risen to her feet.
“Thank you for entertaining my guest,” I said as she walked past. Cloelie curtsied slightly, but left in great haste. I turned back to Vita, who was grinning.
“She rather overstepped herself, didn’t she?” He chuckled. “That boy of yours had barely left to get you before she slipped in and started rubbing my legs. So crude, with such little skill.” He made a tsking noise with tongue, though I wasn’t sure if it was directed at Cloelie’s action or at my not having trained her better.
“She’s new,” I said, and made my way to the sofa. “She’ll learn better eventually. If she learns where her place is first.”
Vita came and sat beside me, turning his body toward mine. “Servants and slaves. They always require so much breaking in. One often wonders if they had ever been taught anything before.”
I smiled. “Indeed. And sometimes they just get their own ideas about how to do their job.”
Vita laughed. It was loud and clear as it had been the other night. I did not detect any falseness in his laugh, nor a twinge of guilt before it.
“Did you ever have such troubles with your slaves or servants?” I asked.
Vita bobbed his head thoughtfully. “One or two, but they were corrected forcefully. Most of the others learned from their examples. The ones who could not learn, I got rid of.”
“Sold, Signora, Sold.” He patted my hand sympathetically. “Nothing so dramatic as others, I assure you. A slave may be of no use to me, but they are still worth something. I’d as much toss coins away in the street as dispose of one out of hand.”
I shook my head. “Oh, I wouldn’t dispose of her. She is just a girl trying to find her way in a woman’s world. She will learn, or time will teach her, that nothing good is rushed.” I turned to look at the empty doorway. The tapestry blocked my view of the hallway, and I wondered if Cloelie was standing on the other side, listening. “Perhaps we should retire to my room?” I suggested.
Vita shook his head. “No, Signora, not just now. You may go open your tapestry if you worry that someone shall continue to overstep her bounds, though.”
I smiled, but did as Vita suggested. Only Calictus stood in the hall, and he was several paces away near the foot of the stairs. “Make sure no one dallies in the hallway,” I said to him. He nodded, and I closed the tapestry behind me once again. “No one is nearby,” I informed Vita. “It seems we can talk after all.”
“That is good, because I do wish to talk to you. Most especially about what you and your friend think you could offer me with your allegiance,” Vita said.
I chuckled, and changed the topic. “Before we worry about that, I was wondering why it is you have Fabricius smuggling Roman soldiers into Siracusae.”
Vita blinked blindly, staring slack jawed in confusion. “What is this you think he is doing?” He recovered quickly enough, though.
“I do not ‘think’ he is doing anything,” I replied, unfazed by Vita’s attempt at a calm exterior. “One of my girls heard him in discussion with a ship master named Catalano.”
There was nothing slack about Vita’s jaw now. “He is using that man to bring trouble here after I expressly told him not to,” Vita said through clenched jaws. “Thank you, Donna. I shall go deal with this at once.” Vita rose and made for the doorway.
I rose with him and placed a calming hand on his shoulder. “Wait, Signore. He will simply deny it, and you will be no further ahead. Please, sit. Let us think this through. Perhaps I can be of assistance. Show you what you could gain with my allegiance, as it were,” I said, smiling.
Vita chuckled softly.
“Now, what did you mean about bringing trouble here?” I asked.
Vita sighed deeply and shook his head. “When we first came here to look for Sicilian Immortals, Fabricius thought we should use our time to stir the pot a little, bring a few troublemakers over from Rome and let them loose. Have them wreck some havoc that we could then sweep in and fix, so that that the locals would love their new Roman advisors.”
A neat idea. “But you are not ‘their new Roman advisors’ just yet,” I said.
“Precisely what I told Fabricius. Still, he continued pushing it, saying that we had best get things in place for when the time came. I tried to explain to him that I had hopes of finding some Silician Immortals to sway to the cause of Rome, and that this would make such theatrics unnecessary, and possibly harmful. I thought he understood and obeyed me, but if you are right then it was all just an act to lull me into forgetting the issue. I wonder how he thought to control these men himself.”
“Why?” I asked, worried. “Was there some difficulty in controlling these men?”
Vita took my hands in his. “There wasn’t when I spoke to Fabricius, but it depends on how far he has gotten in his schemes. You know what Fabricius is.” It was not quite a question. I nodded nonetheless. “He was trying to discover if he could make more like himself. Not from me, but from his own blood. I have never heard of such a think being successful, but he thought he’d found a herb that would strengthen the power of his own blood so that it would be able to strengthen others.”
“A horrifying thought,” I said softly, thinking of Antonius.
“Indeed,” Vita replied.
“Do you have any way to control him?” I asked.
Vita thought for a moment, running his tongue slowly around the inside of his jaw. “Temporarily, especially if he is trying to make new ones. I simply deny him what he needs.”
“Will that control him, though?” I thought of the scratch I had seen on Decentius’ arm that he had tried to pass off as ‘nothing’. “Can you prevent him from simply taking it from you?”
Vita snorted. “I am far stronger than even Fabricius. He cannot take it from me.”
“Even while you are asleep?” I asked, leaning forward and placing a hand on Vita’s shoulder.
“Asleep?” He turned to me abruptly, shocked. “That would be against all protocol.”
I chuckled at his naivete. It seemed he truly was of the upper class, ignorant of the realities of those below him. “Why should he worry about protocol when you cannot correct him? Why should he worry about it when you stand between him and what he wants? He has already ignored your orders. Surely that is against protocol as well?”
Vita glared at me as though I were the one who had disobeyed him. “True. There are other methods at my disposal, but they are also temporary. Far too temporary, it now seems. Perhaps we can be of assistance to one another after all,” he said, and took my hands in his.
A nice way of saying that he needed help, while trying to save dignitas. Romans and their dignity. “Perhaps we can. Is there anything you can do to keep him occupied for a few days without alerting his suspicions?”
“Yes, but....” Vita paused and looked at me quite seriously. “Most everything I do involves communication with Rome. If he is to be kept away from making his plans, I do not want him encouraged to speak to Rome.”
Inspiration struck me. “Can you send him on a journey? Send him to fetch your new allies, perhaps. They are all the way in Messana; it would take him several days to reach there.”
“True.” Vita nodded. “But they will not know how to deal with him when he arrives, or what the situation is.”
“I can take care of that,” I replied. “But tell me one thing: do you want him back alive?”
Vita let go of my hands and sprang backwards. “You are not at all the woman I thought, are you?”
I sighed and shook my head. “It is not like that. I would not kill a slave out of hand any more than you would, but one of my associates is know for his temper, and he prefers to solve things by violence. How do you think I came in to position of this bordello so quickly?”
Vita looked skeptical. “Can he be controlled any better than Fabricius?”
“Marginally,” I said. “And fortunately he is rarely smart enough to plot against his masters. Or plot at all.”
Vita sat silently, his eyes darting back and forth in thought.
“His master is not nearly so impulsive,” I continued. “He is the one who will truly control the situation.”
“And the one I want to ally with?” Vita surmised.
“Not the only one, I hope,” I said, twining a hand through Vita’s thick hair.
“No, not the only one.” He moved closer, his hands wrapping about my waist, and proved that the previous night’s passion not been due to Dionysus’ effects alone.
I was laying naked, bent backwards over the end of the lounge with Vita sucking greedily at my loins, when I heard a soft tap on the wall outside. With a loud scream, I caused myself to finish. Vita began to like the juices from my legs and his face while I waited for the noise to repeat itself.
Vita must have noticed my attention, for he asked, “Do you need to go and start your letter to your friend?”
I was appalled that he noticed my distraction. I moved toward him, hand sliding up his leg toward the bulge under his tunic. “Only if you are satisfied with tonight’s progress.”
Vita smiled and pushed my head into his lap. “Not just yet, Signora. I think it needs a little more work.”
And work I did, while Vita moaned and called me a gift of the gods. Fortunately my hair blocked my face from his view, not that he was paying much attention to anything other than my mouth. I was able to take advantage of his distraction and reach out with my thoughts toward the hallway.
A quiet, calm presence waited on just the other side of the tapestry. It was Benedetta. I touched her mind to see what had brought her here. An image of Diamantina sitting up and trying to walk, then she collapsed backward onto the bed. There was no sense of worry, but their was a sense of urgency. I hoped Vita would be satisfied soon.
Leaving Benedetta waiting in the corridor, I returned my focus to Vita. It did not take much longer for him to finish. I was somewhat surprised, he had been much more persistent the other evening. Perhaps he, too, was thinking of other things he needed to accomplish tonight.
Vita lounged back in the sofa, his arms splayed to either side like a small child spread out on his bed. “Most satisfying, Signora.”
“Truly? It seemed a little rushed to me.” I smiled at Vita as I moved to sit beside him.
He laughed his deep laugh. “You are not wrong, Signora, but that does not diminish the satisfaction.”
I nodded. “I hope that is so, Signore. I would hate to think I was loosing my touch.”
Vita laughed loudly. “Hardly, Antonia, hardly. But, there are many things to be arranged this evening, and I had best get started.” He brushed his tunic into smoothness and rose from the sofa. “Do let your associates know to expect Fabricius. And, please, tell me should they reply.”
“I shall, Vita,” I replied, pleased he had used my name. “If you leave an address where you can be contacted, I shall make certain you are informed.” There was a small desk in the sitting room, and I drew out ink and paper. Vita took the ink and quickly scrawled an address across the page. I peered at it. The writing was not particularly neat, but I could read it. “I shall let you know how things progress, if you will do me the same service.”
“I shall, Signora.” With that, Vita kissed my hand and left.
Benedetta was still waiting outside the tapestry when I followed a few moments later. I had learned that it was best not to see a man to the door; they tended to find that off-putting for some reason. A good farewell could be said anywhere.
“Yes, Benedetta? What has happened with Diamantina, now?” I asked when she turned to me.
She opened her mouth to reply, then promptly closed it in surprise. After blinking rapidly for a moment, she said, “Diamantina wishes to go back to that house and tell them they shall all pay for what has happened to her. She was ranting away after I gave her the medicine, so I prepared another dose of something to make her sleep. She is sleeping, now, but I worry she will charge out and do something rash when she awakens.”
I placed my hand gently on Benedetta’s shoulder and walked with her back to the kitchen. “Was Calictus still outside her room when you left?”
“I shall ask him to make certain she does not leave the bordello. I think that would be best for all involved. I have reached an agreement with Signore Vita, and Fabricius shall be dealt with soon enough.” I paused, wondering if this would be enough to stay Diamantina in her quest. “If she protests, tell her Antonius is being sent to deal with him.”
Benedetta’s eyes widened. “Antonious?” she whispered. “Yes, I think that is appropriate.” Her agreement was forceful. “Diamantina will like that.”
I smiled. “And Fabricius will not.”
While Decentius and Agapios sat inside talking in vague riddles to plan our futures, I was stuck outside with the cart, Nikolaos and Yanni.
“Shall we move the merchandise over, then?” Yanni asked as soon as we stepped outside.
I rolled my eyes. It was bad enough being stuck out here where there was nothing interesting going on without having to do manual labour. Worse yet would be all the friendly banter I’d be forced to engage in. “Fine,” I said. “Let’s get it done with.”
Yanni gave a swooping bow in my direction and hoped up onto our cart. “Now, which of these is the fragile ones?” he asked, swinging his arm to point at all the boxes at once.
“Just those three,” I said, point to the boxes in the top nearest the seat.
Nikolaos sat in the driver’s seat, nervously clutching the reigns. “What are we doing now, Antonius?” he asked softly, barely able to meet my eyes.
“We are finishing the delivery. Take something and follow him,” I said, pointing at Yanni. “He’ll show you where their cart is.”
“I am Yanni, at your service,” Yanni said, and gave one of his ludicrous bows to Nikolaos.
Nikolaos seemed to like it. He even giggled. “And I am Nikolaos,” he replied, making his own sort of bow from where he sat.
“I am sure you will be of the utmost assistance in this, the last of our endeavor,” Yanni said.
“I shall try,” replied Nikolaos, before finally getting in to the back of the cart and picking something up.
I grabbed the nearest large item and started to walk away from the cart, not wanting to listen to anymore of this mindless babble.
“Ah, Antonious, if you will wait one moment, I shall show you the way,” said Yanni. He jumped down in front of me, his arms full of several carefully balanced boxes. “Perhaps we should take the heavier ones, non? Leave the poor Nikolaos to deal with the easy things,” he suggested softly.
I merely grunted in response. “Just show me where to put them.”
Yanni gave another of his silly bows, and strode in front of me. It was not far to their cart, merely the other side of the building. Still Nikolaos was huffing and groaning before we were halfway there.
“Perhaps we should slow down, for his sake?” Yanni whispered. “We do have all night.”
“Is that it?” I said, pointing to a cart with blue trim just ahead. Yanni nodded. “Good. You may want to do this all night, but I don’t.” I strode on and put my box into their cart, then went back for more. I decided to take Yanni’s suggestion and carry some of the heavier ones. I didn’t like making it easier on Nikolaos, but I didn’t want to be waiting on him all evening. Or worse yet, listening to him huff and moan that the work was too hard.
I moved quickly, making twice as many trips as Yanni and Nikolaos. Instead of working hard, Yanni chose to go slowly and chat with Nikolaos. At least he carried multiple boxes each trip. I watched him stack one set and wondered if his abilities had something to do with a freakish sense of balance. I smiled at the idea of Yanni walking along a thin cliff edge overlooking a raging sea and trying desperately to keep from falling in. Then I’d just come up and push him.
I had taken the last box, and already returned to sit in the cart, while the other two walked slowly with the last of their loads chatting away. I wanted to simply drive the cart away, and find something to do, but I did not know how long Decentius was likely to be and he would not be amused to exit the taverna and find his cart and me gone.
“So, what do you we now, hmm?” said Yanni in his jolly voice when he and Nikolaos finally returned. “Sitting around in a cart, waiting, is not the most enjoyable of evenings, non?”
“No, it is not,” I said. “I should like to find those Romans who gave us trouble, and pound their heads in.”
Yanni nodded. “I heard a little of that. Those Romans were out canvassing the streets for word of Signuri Decentius. I do not think they knew his name, though, and none seemed to be worried about you.”
I grunted. “Their mistake.”
Yanni hopped onto the cart and sat down beside me. He pulled Nikolaos up, and helped him into the back.
“Nikolaos, would you like to go back to the villa and get some rest?” I asked. If Yanni was truly interested in finding something to do, Nikolaos would only slow us down.
“Dio Decentius said we should wait for him,” Nikolaos replied, eyes downcast.
“Fine,” I said, hopping out of the cart. “You wait for him. He only needs one of us to take the cart back. Lay down and rest or something. Who knows, they may be in their all night, plotting. I don’t intend to spend my evening just sitting around.”
Yanni looked back and forth between Nikolaos and I. “Is it safe to leave him here? Surely your master will be upset if anything happens to one of his men.”
I shrugged. If Nikolaos thought he would get further in Decentius’ employ by sitting around and waiting, let him. I would go and deal with a real problem, and enjoy myself while I did. “Do you have a knife, Nikolaos? Anything to defend yourself with?”
Nikolaos shook his head. “The Dio is the best protection.”
I snorted. I was best protection, but Nikolaos was infatuated with Decentius it seemed. “Perhaps, but he is not here now. Nor is he here frequently.”
Yanni nodded along with my words. “It is very true, young Nikolaos. Our masters may be powerful men, but that does not always make us safer. In fact, it often makes it worse, for others may be jealous of their power and seek to use their own men against them.”
True enough, though why Decentius should worry about one as weak as Nikolaos, I did not know. Perhaps he liked the taste of Nikolaos.
“Here.” Yanni passed a knife to Nikolaos.
I had not noticed him carrying one earlier. It seemed Yanni was not as toothless as he acted. Then again, he was servanti. I should not dismiss him simply because he acted like a fool. Perhaps he was merely acting.
“Keep this on yourself.” Yanni took some chords that had been wrapped around his thigh and helped Nikolaos secure the sheath to his leg. “There. Now you have a way to protect yourself that requires no assistance from anyone. Stay, if you must. We shall not be too long.”
I snorted. I had hoped to be rather a long time bashing heads, but it would be wiser to return before Decentius noticed that I had left.
Satisfied that Nikolaos had his own source of protection, Yanni gave him a large pat on the back, nearly sufficient to knock Nikolaos over, and hopped to the ground beside me. “Come, Antonius, let us seek out these Roman wretches who have caused your master such trouble.”
I growled appreciatively. “Lead on, Yanni.”
Yanni strode down the street quick enough that I needed to concentrate to catch up with him. He managed to look like he was simply ambling even with his speed. When a cart rounded a corner near us, he slowed to a more human pace. He nodded to the cart driver. “That one is a trader on the sea. Likely he has meet with your Romans,” Yanni whispered.
“Should we follow him?”
Yanni shook his head. “No, his cart is empty and it is late at night. No one will be out trading just now. Or at least, not trading goods, eh?” He chuckled and nudged my shoulder.
I chuckled in appreciation. I thought of Donna Antonia and Cloelie. I wondered if either had fucked the Roman yet. Decentius might think Donna Antonia was going to bargain with the Roman, but I was under no such illusions. She knew exactly where her power came from; the place between her legs. “That might be fun. After we have dealt with the Romans.” I grinned.
“Or perhaps we can do both at once, eh?” Yanni raised his brows suggestively.
I shrugged. Fucking Romans wasn’t what I had in mind. The Greek might be fine using a man as he would a woman, but I wasn’t interested. Unless it humiliated them.
Yanni lead on, and we found ourselves at a taverna near the one Decentius and I had found the Romans in before. I looked up the street and saw the taverna sign from the other night. The taverna itself seemed a bit singed. “What happened?”
“Valerius does not deal with failure well, it seems,” Yanni said. “He told his men he would ‘light a fire under them’ so that they would find you. I do not think the manager thought he meant it so literally.”
I laughed. “All the effort, and so little luck. Perhaps he will reward me for showing up, then.”
Yanni smiled. “Perhaps, but I doubt it.”
I shrugged. “Here?” I pointed into the taverna we had stopped at.
Yanni nodded. “I do not know if they will be inside now, but this is where they have moved to.”
I nodded. I pushed past Yanni and swung open the door. Inside it was dark. Candles flickered on the white walls. There was a lot of white. It was annoying. White on the walls, the cloths on the tables, and the tunics on the slaves standing about. There were a few men in coloured tunics sitting at the tables and drinking. They kept looking about, as though they were afraid they’d turn white.
I didn’t see the Roman or his servanti anywhere. There was an empty table, so I walked to it and sat down. Yanni followed me. “What do we do now?” he asked.
I shrugged. “We wait. Someone will come. Hopefully sooner than later.”
A slave in white approached our table. “Would you be having anything this evening?”
I glared at him. “Some peace and quiet.”
He bowed, and quickly scurried away.
Yanni looked at me, his face scrunched. “Perhaps that was not so good an idea, Antonius. We will look strange if we sit here with nothing on our table.”
“It may make them pay attention to us before we wish it,” he continued.
Again I shrugged. I did not care if I had to deal with some mortals before Valerius and his servanti arrived. It would be a good warm up. “If you wish to get something, go find it yourself. I have no taste for it.”
Yanni rolled his eyes. Then he got up and went after the little slave. Yanni muttered something in his ear while the slave bobbed his head. Yanni was grinning when he returned. “Birra, my friend. No worries about your stomach.” He grunted. “I have the same trouble too, eh? No food tastes much good any more.”
I nodded. “If it is rare and bloody, I can eat it. Otherwise, I just wait for Decentius.”
“Exactly!” Yanni showed his agreement by waving his hand in my face. I wanted to slap it out of the way. But there were three servanti coming, and a room full of Roman slaves. I could take them all myself, but with Yanni’s help it would be much faster.
The slave returned with two mugs of birra. I grunted a thanks to Yanni. He held up his mug. “To a successful evening,” he said. I raised my own mug in salute, then set it down. I would drink it slowly until someone interesting arrived. Yanni sipped at his birra, and tried to catch my eye. I was not interested in idle chat. I kept scanning the room. I wanted to see the Roman when he first returned.
Even with the slow sipping, I had already finished one birra and half of the next before I saw the first servanti. I caught Yanni’s eye and jerked my head to the corner where the servanti had entered. He was standing at the wall, waiting for something.
Yanni turned slightly, took a quick look, and turned back. “I have seen him before,” Yanni said.
I nodded. “There are two more.”
“That is why we are both here.” Yanni grinned.
I grinned, too. Then I grinned wider as I saw Valerius enter the taverna flanked by his other two servanti. He strode past the waiting one, across the room, and out a door on the far side.
I downed the rest of the birra and went to follow him. Yanni caught up with me half way across the room. So did one of the slaves.
“You cannot go in there, Signuri. It is reserved for our guest,” he said.
I snorted. “Well, I sat here and had a drink. That makes me your guest, too.” I pushed past him and continued on toward the doorway.
I could hear Yanni behind me. “You will excuse my friend. He is very eager to go and renew his acquaintance with that fellow.” There was an odd thud, and then Yanni reappeared beside me. I turned to see the slave busy picking up pieces of a mug. I cocked at eyebrow. “It was easy enough to distract him. A large clamour might make our friend pay attention to who is coming in the door, non?”
I nodded grudgingly. “He won’t have long to notice,” I said.
I banged open the door. It smashed into one of the servanti who had been standing just inside. He needed to work on his reflexes. He was stunned, so I left him for Yanni and moved into the room toward the next servanti.
I hit him, hard, across the jaw. He blinked and stumbled backwards. “Why?” he asked inanely. Then he did something, and suddenly there was this odd light around him. It made him look like he was glowing. It made it harder to make out his face. That didn’t matter. I knew where his head was and hit him again.
“Stop!” came a ringing tone from the other side of the room. I felt the command sink into my bones. My arm stopped mid-swing. My legs refused to move me closer to my target.
Then the Roman was in front of me. He was glowing, too, but it was easier to see his face. It looked like a thing of beauty, a god descended from Olympus. I wanted to smash him for his trickery. I had broken his hold before.
The Roman, Valerius, stood in front of me. His head was tilted to the side as he examined me. I pushed against his command, hating him for besting me. “This one looks familiar, does he not?” he asked the servanti who’s face I’d smashed in.
“Yes, master. He came in with the fellow all in black. The ones you’ve been searching for.”
Valerius grinned, and his glow grew brighter. “Excellent then! They have delivered themselves into my hands without any work at all. Fortuna smiles upon me.” He reached out and patted me on the head like a dog. “This one I know,” he said, pointing at Yanni. “He belongs to the Greek trader who is giving us so much trouble. Which do you think came up with the brilliant idea to attack me in my stronghold?” Valerius turned his back, speaking with his servanti.
It was a mistake. Without his brilliance blinding me, I could focus all my anger on getting free. My hand finished its swing and rammed into the back of Valerius’ head. He stumbled forward into the arms of his servanti. My legs were freed. I closed the gap between us, and grabbed Valerius’s arms from behind yanking them backward. I did not want him facing me.I pulled him from his servanti and backed toward the wall.
The servanti stepped toward us, trying to blind me with his glow.
“You are making a grave mistake,” Valerius said. There was an odd ringing to his voice, but I ignored it.
“Shut up,” I said, and bashed the back of his head with my own. “Shut up now, and you might live.”
The servanti moved toward me again. This time I used Valerius as a battering ram and darted forwards. Unwilling to hurt his master, the servanti darted away.
“It will not work,” Valerius said. “We will overpower you. Now stop.”
I felt the command wash over me but this time I ignored it. I swiveled around to face the wall. “I said shut up!” I smashed Valerius’s head into the wall. When I moved to smash it again, I felt his servanti come up behind me. One grabbed each of my arms. Stupidly, they did not pull together. One pulled at a time. I moved with their pulls, swinging myself and Valerius around. His legs whipped out, whacking into the knees of the nearest servanti and sending him sprawling backwards.
Valerius was dead weight in my arms. I threw him forward into the stumbling servanti, then swung around to hit the one on my other side. He dodged. Well, they all get lucky sometimes. I swung again. He dodged again. This was getting annoying.
Now that I was facing back towards the door, I could see Yanni still locked with the first servanti I’d hit. He didn’t seem to have made very much progress. Perhaps they were still frozen from that obnoxious ‘stop’ command.
I kept swinging at the one in front of me, but all he did was dodge. He was older than the other two. This was the fellow who’d come ahead. Maybe he was older in other ways.
“You won’t hit me, you know,” he said. “I can do this far longer than you. Egnatius, take master to his chambers.”
The other servanti, the one I’d thrown Valerius at, nodded and began to scuttle away.
“No,” I said, and leapt to the far side of the room. The servanti carrying Valerius stopped in his tracks and turned to the old man.
“Fine,” said the old one, “leave him to me. Go help Octavian.”
He darted off, dropping Valierius on the floor. The old man moved toward me. I decided to try something I’d seen Theophilus do. I stepped toward a shadow and tried to merge with it. I wasn’t sure if it had worked until I saw the shock on the old man’s face.
I rushed forward, grappling him easily, and dragged him toward the shadow as Decentius had dragged me when we escaped. I pulled him in and left him there. It seemed fitting. Then I went for Valerius.
It was easy enough to grab Valerius. The shadows seemed to grow from me and grasp hold of him. It was harder to wrest him from the servanti. I decided to deal with the servanti first. Valerius was unconscious. He wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Yanni and the third servanti had started struggling in the corner. I heard thuds as they bashed each other into the wall, but I ignored them. Either Yanni beat him, or I would later.
I darted at the servanti who was holding Valerius. He tried to dash away, but the dead weight of Valerius’ body slowed him down and I caught him just as he put his hand on the door. I put his hand on the doorframe and slammed the door on it. It crunched loudly, almost louder than his scream of pain. He dropped Valerius and tried to push the door open. “Please, let me go. I won’t bother you again, I swear. I’ll got straight back to Rome and never leave again.”
I pulled him back into the room. “No,” I said, “you will die.” The only thing in the room was the over sized chair Valerius had been sitting on. I pushed the servanti into it, and beat on him until he stopped begging. By the time he shut up, there was blood oozing from his face and forearms, and urine soaking the seat of the chair. I pried his arms away from his face to check his eyes. They stared straight ahead into nothingness. I tossed him on the floor beside where his master lay.
Yanni was still grappling with the final servanti. I moved toward the door that led back to main taverna, hitting the servanti in his kidney as I passed. That had better be enough for Yanni to be finished with him before I returned.
When I entered the main taverna, several of the slaves stared at me. One ran through a door near the back. I went to follow him. As I reached the doorway, an older slave came out.
“I am sorry, Signuri, but you cannot go in here. It is for staff only. If there is someway we could assist you, we would be happy to bring whatever it is you need into the back room.” He was trying hard to look me in the face but his eyes kept straying to my tunic. I looked down. It was spattered with the blood of the two servanti and Valerius.
“Fine,” I said. “I need a long piece of rope, and a sharp knife. And quickly.” I turned and went back to the room before he could respond. The eyes of the patrons flicked towards me, then quickly away.
Yanni had not finished with the final servanti when I returned. He’d let the servanti get the upper hand. Yanni’s arms were pinned behind his back, and the servanti had backed toward the far door where his master lay. He was standing over Valerius, trying to figure out how to hold both Valerius and Yanni.
“Give it up,” I said. “You’re one good blow away from being finished. Just let him go and take your beating.”
The servanti shook his head. He threw Yanni at me. Yanni stumbled forward, hands whirling, making it impossible for me to see around him. By the time he’d landed on me, the servanti had disappeared out the back door.
“Way to go,” I said, angrily. “Now we’ve lost one.”
Yanni had the brains to look sorry. “Well, you’ve killed that one.” He pointed to the servanti who lay on the floor beside Valerius. “And where has the other gone? Did he escape too?”
I grinned. “Hardly.” I stepped into the nearest shadow and returned with the old servanti. His skin was blue, and his eyes stared into nothing.
There was a timid knock at the door. I opened it to see the old slave had brought me what I asked for. I grabbed them from him. “Don’t come in here. No matter what,” I said, and slammed the door in his face.
Yanni had collapsed to the floor, panting. He wasn’t any good in a fight after all. He hadn’t even been able to finish one servanti on his own.
I dragged Valerius from where he lay to the chair and threw him into it. Then I started tying him in. The rope was long enough to loop around several times. I tied his arms down. I tied his legs down. I even put a loop around his throat for good measure, though I knew strangling him would have little effect.
When it was done, I took out the knife and nicked his throat. I was surprised when it didn’t wake him. I ran my finger over the blood and lifted it to my mouth.
“Stop!” Yanni yelled, urgently. “Do not taste his blood, Antonius You do not wish to give him control over you.”
I stood there, my finger dripping with Valerius’ blood, and stared at Yanni. “What are you talking about?” I said.
Yanni blinked several times before he spoke. “Are you so new to this world no one has told you? Or perhaps your master likes keeping you in the dark? Do you think they give us their blood for our own good? Do you truly think they would give us something so powerful were there nothing in it for them?”
I stared at the blood dripping from my finger. I wiped it on Valerius’ clean with toga. What Yanni said rang true. Decentius would never do anything that was not to his advantage. I had been glorifying in my own power and had forgotten about his. “Tell me what you know.”
Yanni shrugged. “Little enough, and simple enough. We are bound to them. To drink an Immortals blood is to become their slave in a way that cannot be broken. Their blood is in you. They are in you. You will be drawn to them. You cannot fight them the way you fight others. And without it, there is a pain worse than any you have ever known.”
“How do you know this?”
Yanni smiled. It was not a smile I liked. It was a smile that said he was smarter than me. “I am not so new to this as you, Antonius. There are things my master has told me over the years, and things I have learned myself.”
“And why would you tell them to me?” Men who smiled like that at other men wanted something. I had no intention of giving Yanni anything.
Yanni raised his brow, then gestured around the room. “Because you are powerful. But you are untrained, yet. If you knew more, more of what you truly are, think of how powerful you could be.”
I snorted. “Fine. That is wonderful for me. What do you want out of it?”
Yanni smiled that smile again. It made me want to knock his head off. “Perhaps if I teach you what I know, you will not turn your power on me, non?”
This time I laughed. “If you truly think that, then you have not been paying attention.”
Bored by Yanni’s lack of cooperation, I returned my attentions to Valerius. I hadn’t struck him that hard, so why was he still asleep? Perhaps he was only pretending. I decide to leave.
I moved to Yanni and grab his shoulder. Before he could protest, I moved into the neared shadow to watch. Like an owl covered in darkness, I watched my prey for signs of life. I could feel Yanni struggling beside me, but ignored it. He would not die from lack of air. Besides, I could breath fine, unlike when Decentius had taken me, so surely there was air for Yanni. And if not, it would mean he would not get in my way when the time came.
I waited, patiently, in my shadow. The servanti stayed dead on the floor. Valerius stayed still in his chair. No one knocked. No one came in. Finally, Valerius’ eyes opened. He lifted his head and turned toward his servanti.
“Oh, what has that mad fiend done to you? I shall have his head before this is through!” Valerius spat on the floor in front of him, then began to wriggle in the ropes. I laughed to myself. I had tied many an animal far more determined and trashing than Valerius. The ropes held.
I waited until I saw the whites of panic flash in his eyes. Then I stepped from the shadows that hid me and stood in front of him. “I think I shall have your head, Roman,” I growled. “But first you will answer me some questions.”
“Why?” Valerius spat into my face. “You have killed my servanti. You clearly mean to kill me. Why should I give you anything you want?”
“Because,” I took out the knife and held it in front of his face, “I do not mean to kill you right away.”
Valerius screamed. It was a pleasant scream. The kind that is so high pitched, dogs can hear it. It shook the inside of my head, and rattled itself all through my bones. I grinned. He looked at my face and screamed again. As Valerius screamed, he kept glancing at the door to the taverna.
I chuckled. “They will not help you,” I said. “Not that they could. Do you truly think a group of mortals, no matter how many, could ever best me?”
Valerius shook his head. “No, no, no, never.” He kept shaking his head. It reminded me of the way a rabbit twitches when you start to squeeze.
“Stop it,” I said and he did. Mostly. There was still the odd spasm. “Now, you will tell me why you are in Sicily, who you are working with, and what you know of the attacks.”
Valerius nodded, sniffling all the while. “Yes, yes, yes.”
“And you will stop repeating yourself,” I said. I slid my finger along the blade of the knife. “It irritates me.”
Valerius’ eyes widened, but he did not say anything.
“Now, why did you try to capture my master and myself?” I paced around the chair while Valerius answered, not wanting him to get comfortable.
“We needed Sicilians. We needed someone to tell us what the locals thought of our attempts to free them from Greek rule.”
I snorted. “There’s nothing wrong with Greek rule. And I doubt you’ll be any better.”
Valerius managed to look offended through his fear. “Rome is far greater than any country that has come before. We shall rule the world. And all our citizens shall be equal.”
“Your citizens. Your rule,” I said. “It makes little difference to the ones you conquer. To an ox, all yoke are the same.” Suddenly I found myself wondering how Yanni was doing. I had not heard him emerge from the shadows. Perhaps he would like to debate the merits of Greece versus Rome with this fool. I saw little difference. Both were yokes on our necks.
I stepped into the shadow where I left Yanni, and there he sat. His face was blue, and his eyes bulged. I dragged him out after me, and dropped him on the floor near the door.
“Is that your companion?” Valerius asked when he saw me emerge with Yanni in tow.
“Astute,” I replied.
“But, why is he unconscious?”
I snorted and rolled my eyes. “Because he was not strong enough to manage on his own.”
Valerius looked up at me, smiling. “So, you respect strength, then? Then you should most definitely ally with Rome. Just look at how our armies crush the Greeks before them.”
He had a point. “And who do you plan on crushing next?”
Valerius sputtered. His eyes darted around the room. “Not you. Surely Sicily is smart enough to bend with the times. It has seen this sort of thing before.”
“Yes,” I said, leaning closer, “and we have learned that one ruler is much like another. And they are all best when they leave and go back home.” I flashed the knife in front of him, but Valerius put on a front of bravado and stuck out his chin. I nicked it.
He screamed again.
“So, do you have anything useful to tell me? Or are you just going to sit there and sputter about the greatness of Rome and how it will change things for the best?”
I heard a sputtering cough from behind me. It seemed Yanni had woken up.
Valerius flicked his eyes to Yanni, and then back to me. His chin rose again. “What I have to say is for your ears alone.”
I laughed. “If you are so confident about the greatness of Rome, what does it matter if one lowly Greek hears what you have to say?” Valerius did not offer a rebuttal. “Why are you here, who are you working with, and what do you know of the attacks?” I swung the knife loosely in my hand. “I grow weary of your stalling.”
Valerius kept his eyes on the knife. He began to mumble his answer. “I’m here to find out if we can bring the Sicilians in on our side. The Senate sent me. I don’t know much of the recent attacks. The last army briefing I heard was months ago.”
Boring, and useless. “Yanni, do you know what will hurt one of these?” I asked, gesturing at Valerius.
Yanni chuckled. “Fire. Knives, a little. Cypress wood. Sunlight.”
I smiled. “Would you go fetch me some candles, then? I think I have a little carving to do.”
Valerius sputtered and began squirming again. He thrashed in the ropes so much that they actually began to stretch. “I answered your questions! What more do you want of me?” Tears leaked from his eyes.
“Fun,” I said, and moved toward him with my knife. I pushed the point in at the base of Valerius’ neck and drew it downward along his arm to his wrist. Then I did the same on the other arm. Valerius’ screams echoed through the small room until they became so high pitched I could no longer hear them. His mouth was wide, and the cords in his throat stood tight against the rope around it.
Once I’d finished his arms, I stood back and pondered. I really needed to do the back of his legs, but I couldn’t without untying him. They’d have to wait until Yanni returned with the candles.
Valerius swung his head toward the door before I even heard Yanni’s footsteps. His eyes bulged at the sight of the candles Yanni held. Two were lit, but there were several unlit ones tucked into the belt on his tunic. “The manager wants to know when we will be done. He says we have scared away all his customers.”
I snorted. “Food couldn’t have been that good, then, if they can’t even stand a little screaming.”
Yanni chuckled and handed me one of the lit candles. I smiled, and passed him the knife. Valerius was focused on the candle as I moved toward him. I held it in front of his face and he tried to blow it out. I jerked the candle away from him, but no air came out of his mouth. The flame flickered from the motion, nothing else. He had forgotten to breathe.
I blew softly on the candle, increasing the flame and building up a nice puddle of wax. Then I stepped closer to Valerius. I moved the candle under his chin. The flame licked at his face and hair. I smelled a whiff of signed hair. Valerius strained against the ropes, trying to get away. It was funny, really; the more he strained, the wider the cuts in his neck grew. I tipped the candle and poured the wax into one of the cuts.
Valerius screamed so loudly I had to cover my ears. The windows rattled. Yanni stumbled backwards. Valerius arched so high in his chair, it actually moved backwards.
By time he’d stopped screaming, a good pool of wax had built up again. This time I poured it into the second cut. The result was the same, though I didn’t bother covering my ears this time. Yanni didn’t stumble, he only covered his ears and grimaced. Valerius didn’t scream nearly as long.
I repeated it, over and over, until both cuts were lined with wax from neck to wrist. Each time Valerius screamed. By the fourth time, his voice was hoarse. Not even Yanni had to cover his ears after that. Tears ran down Valerius’ face and he mumbled pleas for me to stop. I simply grinned.
When I had finished lining his arms with wax, I undid the ropes. Valerius fell forward out of the chair, kneeling before me muttering pleas in Latin. It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d understood him, I had no intention of stopping yet. I picked him up and flung him face first onto the chair. I heard a confused grunt from Yanni. When I starting hoisting Valerius’ tunic and toga, Yanni chuckled. I nearly swung around to take his head off. It was not what he thought.
Valerius no longer protested. He simply lay limply across the chair. He probably expected the same thing as Yanni. They were both going to be disappointed.
I turned to Yanni. “Knife,” I said. He looked confused, but passed it over. I handed him back the candle. “Hold that until I need it again.”
Now Valerius began to squirm, but his screaming and thrashing hadn’t left him with much energy. I pinned him with one hand and place the point of the knife on his buttocks. He squirmed, but I pinned my knee against his other leg. “The more you squirm, the longer this will take. Do you want it over with, or not?”
With a whimper, Valerius slumped against the chair and I began to cut. First, there was a large gash across his buttocks. Then the was filled with hot wax. Then there were the cuts from buttocks to ankle, just like on his arms. And slowly those had to be filled with wax as well. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying. Valerius merely let out a few whimpers. He’d long since given up.
When I turned to get a second candle from Yanni, I noticed he had a huge erection. “Did you want to fuck him?” I asked. Yanni nodded enthusiastically. “When I’m done.” He nodded again.
I finished filling the second cut with wax, and then let Yanni fuck Valerius. I moved around so I could see their faces as he did it. Yanni’s was gleeful and ecstatic. Valerius was despairing, when he bothered to do anything other than look at the floor. This was turning out to be a fun night after all.
When Yanni finished, he stepped back and looked for me. “Thank you, Antonius,” he said, panting, “that was most enjoyable. I’ve always wanted to fuck a Roman, especially a Senator.”
“Why don’t you fuck each other?” Valerius muttered.
I slapped him. I threw him into the air, then slammed him back onto the chair. “That’ll cost you.”
Valerius stared blankly ahead. I moved in front of him and yanked up his tunic. “Here, Yanni, come hold it,” I said, pointing at Valerius’ partially erect cock. Yanni grinned.
I lifted the bloody knife in front of Valerius’s face and watched his eyes widen. “Please,” he said. “Anything.”
“Too late,” I said, and hacked his cock off.
Yanni grabbed it, and went dancing around the room waving it. I ignored him. I took a candle to the bleeding stump and began to burn it.
I’d thought Valerius was done with screaming. I’d thought he could scream no louder. I was wrong. This time Yanni danced to the screams, dangling Valerius’ cock from his mouth like a dog with a bone. I laughed almost loud enough to be heard.
When I’d finish burning Valerius, I handed the candle back to Yanni. “We’re done now. You can go. Go home and tell your Senators how well Sicilians think of their plans. Tell them to leave us alone. Tell them you met a scourge of Hades, and are afraid to come back. Tell them whatever you want, but make sure I never see your face again. And make sure if they ever send someone here again, he’s prepared to give us anything we want.”
Valerius nodded as I spoke.
“Repeat it,” I said.
“Anything you want, or don’t come back,” he said, babbling.
I snorted. “Close enough.” I grabbed the lit candle from Yanni and threw it in Valerius’ lap. As he batted at it in fear, the wax in his arms beginning to smoke when it touched the flame, I left. Yanni exited right behind me.
“That was a most enjoyable evening, Signore,” he said.
The old slave approached us as we walked through the taverna. “Have you finished?”
“Thank Fortuna. Will you be back?”
I shrugged. “Not if you get rid of him.”
The old slave nodded. “We shall make certain he leaves at night fall.” He took several glances toward the room we had exited. “Can he leave? Does he have any assistance?”
I shrugged. “He can leave. He can walk. But no one will help him.”
“Oh.” The old slave looked sad.
“You’re not sorry for him, are you?” I asked.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no!” he said quickly. “It will just be more work for us, is all. But, uh, you are not caring about that, I’m sure.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“Now, now, we should reward them for their assistance,” Yanni said. He slipped some coins into the old slave’s hand. “For your troubles.”
“Thank you,” the old slave replied. He bowed and scuttled away into the back.
I ignored it, and walked out. The sun was starting to rise. I heard the door slam behind me as Yanni followed.
“That was a good night, non?” Yanni said.
“Yah,” I said. “I got to scare him up a little, and you got rid of the competition.”
Yanni went white. “It is not like that. You wanted to find him, and I helped.”
I chuckled. “And forgot to mention that you had your own bone to pick with him. And forgot to mention that you are nearly useless in a fight. You’re lucky it was me. Doing a little damage was worth playing along with your game. Decentius would’ve just left the moment he realized what you were doing.”
Yanni grinned. “And that is why I did not invite him, eh?”
I chuckled along with him. “Fine. But next time don’t hide things from me. Or there will be more than one roughed up person.”
Yanni nodded. “That is fair enough, Antonius. Fair enough for us.” He put out his hand.
I looked at it and shrugged. I clasped his wrist briefly.
“And now we are friends,” he said and smiled.
I smiled, too. I didn’t bother to correct him.
I sat in the taverna trading barbs with Agapios until it was nearly sunrise. There was little enough to talk about. He knew the Romans would soon come for Messana, and was trying to get himself and his goods out before they did. He asked me to recommend a Sicilian shipbuilder. I did. Then we sat, and drank, and discussed the foibles of Rome while he watched his red-haired slave walk back and forth carrying our cups.
“They are over-stretching themselves, do you not think? Certainly their armies have done well so far, but it cannot continue forever. Greece will fight them to the last, never you fear,” said Agapios, thumping his cup on the table.
“I expect it will,” I replied. “As did Italia. As will Sicily. As will everyone else Rome decides to take. They are not going to fall soon.”
Agapios snorted. “What do you know? You are only an islander. You do not know the way of the world.”
I did not let my smile touch my lips. “Perhaps. But we do know a great deal about conquest.”
“Ha! When have you ever been a conqueror? Conquered more times than you know, I expect,” Agapios said.
“Precisely.” I smiled.
Agapios waved a hand dismissively. If he did not wish to learn how to surrender without being defeated, I did not plan to tell him. Let the Greeks be crushed by the Romans, it was little enough to me. As long as Sicily was not crushed I did not care about ‘the way of the world’.
And then he began to babble meaninglessly once again. I nodded, and made polite reply, hoping he would soon end this. It was not until the light of false dawn came through the windows that Agapios showed any interest in leaving, and then he was quick about it.
“Oh dear, we have lost track of the evening! I must go now, and so must you. Perhaps we shall see each other again soon, non?” he said.
“Perhaps,” I replied. I waited until he and his red-haired slave had left, then counted to ten. There was the hidden compartment in my cart if I truly needed it, and I wanted to make certain that Agapios had gone. I did not want to be talking to him again soon.
When I exited the taverna, I saw the cart outside, but there was no one in it. As I approached, I saw Nikolaos sleeping in the back. There was no sign of Antonius. I should not have been surprised. Antonius got bored very easily.
There was still enough darkness for me to be out, so I sat in the front and drove the cart back to our albergu. I did not want to wake Nikolaos. I needed at least some of my staff alert in the daytime, and I doubted that Antonius had gone back to bed. More likely he was off stirring up trouble. I hoped he did not create more trouble.
The cart was returned and parked with still no sign of Antonius. I left Nikolaos sleeping and went inside to my room. The shutters were drawn. Still uncertain of what had happened to Antonius, I went to sleep.
I awoke to see Nikolaos and Antonius waiting at the foot of my bed. Nikolaos stood calmly awaiting orders, while Antonius grinned like a wolf among sheep.
“Where were you?” I asked Antonius, as I rose. He threw me the evening’s tunic before responding.
“Yanni and I went on an adventure. He took me to see that Roman who’s been causing us such trouble.”
“And?” I had no doubt by the state of Antonius’ grin there had been violence involved. It was only whether the violence was to our benefit or not.
“I don’t think he’ll be causing us any more trouble. In fact, he should be hurrying on his way back to Rome just now,” Antonius replied.
I sighed. “And why would you send our one Roman contact back to Rome, after having beaten him near to death?”
“Because he was an arrogant son of a goat who would never have left us alone until we bowed in slavery.” Antonius growled.
“I suspect that there were other ways to deal with him. Still, it is done, and Antonia has another Roman. Perhaps he will be more agreeable.”
“He could scarcely be less,” Antonius said.
I refused to respond.
There was a faint knock at the door. I gestured to Antonius to open it. Outside stood one of the inn staff. “Procurius sent me,” he muttered.
I smiled. “Thank you. Do come in.” I turned to Antonius and Nikolaos. “Wait for me until the dining hall. Do not go anywhere else,” I said, pointedly. Antonius merely grunted.
I fed, then bade the slave to lay on my bed for a rest. I doubt he would have made it far on his own, and his resting on my bed was less unseemly than my carrying him to his own.
When I arrived in the dining hall, both Nikolaos and Antonius were there. Antonius was eating a half raw steak. The sight of the blood oozing from it made me feel hungry, despite having just fed. I ignored it as best I could and focused on the two of them.
“What happened with the Greeks and their trade?” I asked.
Nikolaos said, “We transported everything to their chart, Dio. I stayed to wait for you, I am sorry I fell asleep.”
“That is fine, Nikolaos. There was no need for you to stay awake. I had not intended to be so long, but Signore Agapios kept talking long after there was anything to say.”
Antonius chuckled. “Perhaps that was on purpose. Dio.”
I raised a brow, and indicated that Antonius should continue.
“Yanni suggested we track down the Roman. While I was busy with him, the Roman indicated that Yanni and his master had been giving him trouble,” Antonius said.
“And you believe they used you to solve their problem,” I said.
“Does this bother you?” I asked.
Antonius shrugged. “It solved their problem and ours. I had an enjoyable evening. I’m not overly bothered by it.”
“Truly, Dio.” Antonius chuckled. “I told Yanni it was lucky it was me he’d taken along. That you would have left as soon as you realized he was playing a game with you.”
I nodded. “That is true enough. Though whether it was wise to tell it to someone who already seems inclined to manipulate us, is another thing.”
“What?” Antonius said. “I warned him not to play games with you. I don’t know that he’ll be playing games with either of us. I told him I didn’t mind this time, but next time he’d get what Valerius got.”
“And what was that? Precisely,” I asked.
“Pain.” Antonius grinned. “And castration. True castration. And a message to his Senate to leave us alone until they are willing to give us actual power.”
I shook my head at Antonius and his impulsive nature. I did not know if this Valerius could have been turned to our cause, though his behaviour made me doubt it, but now Antonius had angered not only one Roman, but likely the entire Senate. “You have just made things worse, Antonius. Unless this Roman Antonia has found will step in, you have shamed one Roman who will now go and tell his brethren that we are savages unwilling to listen to reason. Instead of offering us terms, they will simply slaughter us and the people of Sicily until we bow to them as they wish.”
Antonius shrugged. “Then we’d better pray Antonia is as successful at politics as she is at seduction.”
The look he gave me when discussing Antonia was that of a bull who prepares to charge. He no longer seemed as smitten with her as he had been. I wondered what she had done to change his opinion.
“It would seem we are done here in Messana, then. Take the night to gather your things, and tomorrow you will go and buy supplies for our journey to Siracusae.” Nikolaos nodded at my instructions. Antonius merely grunted and went back to eating.
“Excuse me, Dio,” Procurius said, entering the dining hall. “A bird came for you while you slept. A red eyed bird.” He looked at me evenly as he said it.
“And you did not give the message to one of my people?”
Procurius hung his head. “I could not find Antonius most of the day, and Nikolaos said he did not want it.”
I wanted to roll my eyes at their collective ineptitude. Instead, I held out my hand to Procurius. He dropped the letter into it. It had Antonia’s seal. I broke the seal and read the contents.
“It is too bad you did not take this message, Antonius,” I said. “It might have given you something productive to do today. It certainly will give you something to look forward to.”
Antonius perked his head up from his dish, and stared at me intently.
“Antonia writes to let us know that the Roman she has made contact with, one Vita, is having a problem with his servanti. Rather than deal with it himself, she has gotten him to send this Fabricius here to us, so that we may prove our worth by dealing with him,” I said.
“Without killing him,” I said, looking directly at Antonius.
Antonius made an unpleasant face and went back to eating. “I didn’t kill that Roman,” he muttered in between mouthfuls. “Now I can’t kill this one.” He turned to me. “There is a war coming. I’d like to kill some Romans sometime.”
I nodded. “I’m sure that can be arranged eventually, but you will have to practice your patience to have the chance.”
Antonius snorted, but nodded before he went back to eating.
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Procurius. Do you have any suggestions at how we might discover when this Fabricius arrives in Messana?
Procurius nodded slowly. “If he has been sent to look for you, I can send men out to the taverna’s to listen. Did the Donna provide a description?”
I shook my head. “She said only that he was like Antonius, but not so smart.” I paused. “Though he must have some level of cunning to have kept his plans from his master. It says Antonia only discovered his plans because one of her girls fell awry of him.”
Antonius smiled. “Cloelie?”
“No,” I said, sharper than I had intended. Antonius had far too much interest in Cloelie. I had thought it meant she was dealing with him well, but his look when he spoke of her was not the vague look he had once worn whenever Antonia was mentioned, but the hungry look he wore when he spoke of his adventures.
“He will arrive in the daytime?” Procurius asked.
“I do not know,” I said. “He has set out for Messana with all speed, and supplies needed in Rome. Odd that they should send him here when there are ships aplenty in Siracusae. He is not limited to the night, however. Like Antonius.”
Procurius looked warily at Antonius. “I shall tell the men I know of this. They will return with any information that they hear.” He bowed, and left.
I turned to Antonius and Nikolaos. “His men should not be the only ones out listening for word of this Procurius. Tavernas, docks, roadways; go and listen. And try and do it discretely,” I added.
Nikolaos nodded. Antonius merely continued chewing.
“I should like to see where it was you ‘dealt’ with this Valerius, Antonius,” I said. “When you have finished your meal, you will take me there.”
“Yes, Dio,” Antonius muttered through his mouthful.
Instead of standing inside to watch Antonius masticate, I followed Nikolaos out the front door. There was a small veranda, with two chairs. I sat in one and watched the city flow past. There was much more happening here in the city at night than there was on the farm. People bustled to tavernas for a late meal. They snuck away to the local bordello. They went down to the docks for last of the day’s catch that the fisherman were all but giving away. Everyone carried with them their own ball of light. I was glad to no longer need that. It was one of the few compensations for missing out on the daylight hours.
Antonius slammed through the door, and trod past me. He looked about lazily, then grunted and turned for the stable, likely thinking I had gone to check on Nikolaos or the chart.
“You need to learn to use your eyes better, Antonius,” I said.
Antonius stopped and peered toward my voice. “You are never easy to see, Dio, even when you are not making it deliberately difficult.”
I smiled. “And you are seldom easy to overlook.”
He responded with his usual grunt. “Makes people less likely to bother me.”
I nodded. “The second time around, true. But there is still that first trouble that you so relish.”
He always seemed to show his teeth when he grinned. “True. It makes things interesting.”
I shook my head. The discussion was pointless, though we would doubtless have it again. To get Antonius to understand subtly would take ages. I wondered if even my Immortal lifetime would be enough.
Antonius shrugged, turned away, and continued walking. I followed. He did not bother to talk to me or anyone else he encountered. Aside from casting the occasional withering glance in my direction, and grinning lasciviously when we passed a bordello, Antonius kept his eyes fixed ahead.
“There,” he said finally, pointing at a taverna just down the street. “I expect you want to make a good impression, so I won’t go in with you. I’ll wander the docks. If it’s all right with you. Dio.”
I was not sure what I’d done to annoy him this time, but I nodded and watched him walk away. He was right, after all; I did want to make a good impression, and his presence would no doubt interfere with that goal.
I walked to the taverna Antonius had pointed out and went in. There were only a handful of people inside. There were several slaves standing near the back, watching people eat.
I sat down at a table. One of the slaves came over to me. “Would the Signuri like something this evening?”
I smiled and nodded. “Some wine, please.”
He bowed and walked away. I watched as he moved toward the back of the taverna and through a door painted to match the walls. It was near this door that several of the waiting slaves stood.
I sipped my wine and watched the other patrons. Two were alone. They ate quickly, paid, and left. There was one group of three, and one of two. The group of three appeared to be having an lively debate as they ate. There was much thumping of chests, waving of hands, and the occasional thud on the table among that group. The two were talking quietly and barely eating. They kept waving away the slave when he approached. They also kept glancing toward one side of the room. When I followed their glance, I saw a door into what was likely a private area for wealthy clientele. The two were looking at this door with considerable apprehension. I slipped into the shadows and went to listen.
“In there is where he said to look. He thought his master might still be locked up in there,” said one of them.
“Sure, but how are we supposed to get in there? No one has gone near that door all evening. And he didn’t give us any money to buy our way in,” the second one said.
“I don’t know. I think we should just tell him it’s a lost cause. That fellow he was looking for hasn’t been here all day. I’d really like to get home to my wife.”
The second one chuckled. “Enjoying that newly married bliss, are you? What happened to that boy who used to work in your shop?”
“He went off to fight the Romans. All the good little boys are going off to fight the Romans. And yes, I am enjoying my newly married bliss. How else am I ever going to get her pregnant?”
I had a few thoughts on that subject myself, but I did not think that either of the two men would care to hear them. Especially from a voice out of the darkness. I drifted back to my table and took my seat. The slave came by again and asked if I wanted anything to eat.
“No, thank you,” I replied. “I am happy with just the drink. Tell me, why are you so empty this evening? Your wine is excellent, and your food smells delicious.” The wine was mediocre, but acceptable, and I had hated the smell of food since becoming Immortal, unless the food was raw meat.
The slave blushed. “I thank you for your kind words, Signuri. Our manager will be glad to hear them.” He looked about, glancing toward the group of slaves standing near the door at the back. In a hushed voice, he continued. “Sadly, there was a little incident last night with one of our more prestigious guests. You know how it is with men of power, all of them have enemies. Unfortunately one of his enemies caught up with him here, and used our private room to take his vengeance.”
I raised a brow. “That is unfortunate. Did it disturb your other clientele?”
He nodded gravely. “There were many horrifying sounds coming from the room for several hours. It was not until nearly dawn when the one seeking vengeance left. And our esteemed guest scuttled out of his room this evening before anyone was aware that he was awake.”
“He left without paying?”
Again, a nod. “Many of us think he blames our establishment for what happened. Yet this madmen overcame three guards and the man himself. I do not think that any of us, or even all of us, would have been able to stop him.”
I tried to imagine this group of slaves I saw waiting tables taking on Antonius. The slave was right, they would have all been dead very quickly. “I am sorry to hear that such woes have fallen upon your establishment. Perhaps I can help? If I could speak with your manager?”
He looked worried momentarily, but nodded. “I am not certain where he is, but I shall bring him to you as soon as I possibly can.”
I nodded my thanks and returned to sipping my wine. Several times one of the slaves refilled my glass, or stopped by my table to ask if I would like anything to eat. The three patrons left, still in heated discussion.
The two men finally got up from their table and walked over to the door. All of the slaves turned to watch them. Neither man opened the door, but both listened at it and tried to peer through the small slots left for communication. In frustration, one eventually went to talk to the group of slaves waiting in the back.
“I say, can we get in there? My friend just got married and never had a proper celebration. We’d like to see your room and check if it’s the kind we might use.”
It was a good story, and one that even had a piece of truth from what I’d overheard. Still, no one offered to open the door for them.
Several moments passed before one of the slaves stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Signuri, but none of us have the key. Only the manager can open that door, and he is out on an errand.”
The fellow grunted. “When will he return?”
The slave shook his head. “I do not know. It was a large errand he had to run, for a very important client.”
I heard what he said, and understood what he meant. Antonius had likely threatened them with something horrible and vague if they did not get rid of Valerius quickly. Yet Antonius had also killed most of Valerius’ men. Though from the conversation of the two men, it seemed at least one person was left alive who cared about Valerius’ well being. The manager was even now taking Valerius somewhere to send him far away. Probably down at the docks, where Antonius had gone. The question was only, had Antonius gone to watch and make certain it happened, or had he gone to make things worse?
I waved over the slave who had been helping me. “Here,” I said, handing him several coins, far more than the worth of a few bottles of wine. He started to protest but I waved him to silence. “To help make up for your unfortunate evening last night. I shall return another time, and hope to speak with your manager then.”
“Thank you, Signuri. You would be most welcome back at any time.” He gave me several bows as he backed away from my table. I watched as he went to talk with his fellow slaves at the back, showing them the coins I had given him and gesturing repeatedly in my direction. So much for my vaunted discretion. I was going to leave as large an impression on this place as Antonius had done.
I exited the taverna without further attention. Fortunately the slaves were busy discussing their new found patron, and did not notice me rise, or perhaps one of them would have insisted on seeing me out.
I left the taverna, and looked around to recall where Antonius had gone. I followed where I had seen him leave, though he was the sort to try and make things difficult. Fortunately, I heard the sounds of the sea before long, meaning I could find my own way. The path was indirect, and wove between several buildings. I wondered if Antonius had known I would follow him, or if he was simply trying to sneak up on Valerius and the taverna manager.
When I came out from between the buildings, I could smell the salt water, and see the masts of the ships in the moonlight. I did not see any people about. There was a cart standing empty near one of the piers. I made my way toward it, thinking perhaps it was the one that Valerius had been brought in. Given Antonius’ ferocity, I did not know if he would be able to walk.
As I drew near the cart, I heard hushed voices. Neither of them belonged to Antonius, for which I was glad. I merged with the shadows, and moved closer to listen.
“You must hurry away, Signore. I cannot wait with you any longer. I do not know what happened to your third man. If I see him, I will tell him you have returned to Rome, but that is all. I can do nothing further for you.” That must be the taverna manager, anxious to have Valerius out of his way, and not wanting to provoke Antonius further.
“I understand,” said a second voice, presumably Valerius. His voice sounded hoarse. I wondered just how long Antonius had had him screaming for. “I will remember what kindness you have given me when Rome returns here. Do not look to that maniac for protection. Be warned, sooner or later Rome will take Messana. He may have just made it sooner.”
“Fine, fine,” said the manager, babbling. “The sooner it is done, the shorter time we live in suspense. Now get on your boat and go away! I am back to my taverna, now.” I heard the sound of running feet across the dock as the manager made his statement true.
I moved back into the shadows, and watched as Valerius hobbled onto the ship. The captain looked at him with fear and pity in his face. When he offered Valerius a seat on a barrel, Valerius merely clutched the sides of it and leant across. “Just get underway,” I heard him say. It was less the command that I would have expected, and more a frustrated yell. Slowly, the boat began to move. I watched as they sailed out of the harbor, not certain how Antonius’ actions would be interpreted in Rome. Certainly Valerius was angry, not afraid as Antonius had intended. Would he bring that anger out in the other Romans, or would their heads be cooler and more cautious?
And did he have any connections with the Roman that Antonia was now courting? If he did, we were nearly doomed before we started.
Now that the ship had departed, I walked back along the pier. I saw no one else. The tracks of from the cart that had carried Valerius and his goods headed back in the direction of the taverna, but I decided to wait for the following evening to visit again. Instead I walked through Messana, making note of where the roads from the West and South entered the city.
I went back to the inn to go to bed. A moment after I entered the room, there was a knock on my door. Antonius entered.
“Yes?” I said.
“I’m hungry,” he replied bluntly.
I rolled my eyes, then scratched my arm and held it out for him. He fed, then left without another word. I wondered where he had been that night, and why I had not seen him on the pier. The report of the night’s activities would wait. It was unlikely that Fabricius was already here.
The next night Antonius and Nikolaos awaited my waking once again. This time I turned away the knock at the door, telling him to return in half a candlemark.
“Tell me of what you saw last night,” I said to the two.
Nikolaos began a description of various taverns he had visited, the outside of two bordellos, and two of the men guarding the Western road.
“Did you ask them why they were guarding a road?” I asked.
“No, Dio, I did not. They did not look like fellows who enjoyed being questioned by a mere slave,” Nikolaos said.
I nodded. If they were professional guardsmen, they would not take kindly to questions from anyone, and a slave was likely to get a beating for bothering to ask. Then I looked to Antonius for his report. He merely shrugged.
“I went to the docks. Nothing unusual there. Some men selling fish, and a ship leaving for Rome.”
“And how do you know it was leaving for Rome?” I asked.
Antonius smiled. “Because I know who was on it. I put him there, mostly. He left in fear of me.”
“No, he did not,” I said.
Antonius growled. “You weren’t there. You didn’t here him begging for his life.”
“True,” I replied, “but I was at the pier, and I did hear him talking to the manager of the taverna. Valerius was not scared when he left; he was angry. He was planning to raise Rome against you, starting with Messana.”
Antonius grinned wider. “Let him. I’ll take them all.”
“Will you? And how is that when we have businesses in Siracusae and the farm lies several days from Messana? You will not hear of the Roman’s return until they have ransacked Messana and killed hundreds. Your moment of anger will have cost hundreds of lives,” I said.
Antonius ground his teeth but did not reply. He would not apologize, but he was smart enough to know that I disapproved. “Then how do you propose we fix it, Dio?” he said, with only a slight snarl.
“I’m glad to hear you ask such a wise question, Antonius.” I could not keep myself from baiting him. Antonius was all action, he did not like to be labelled for his mind. “Our best hope of fixing things is to find this Fabricius and make an alliance with this other Roman that Antonia has found. Hopefully he will have more sway, and quickly, than Valerius, for I, at least, take the idea of protecting mortals quite seriously.”
Now Antonius managed to look actually upset. He stared at his feet, shuffling back and forth in discomfort.
“And what should we do, Dio?” asked Nikolaos.
“You have made a good start, Nikolaos. I would have you do what you did last night, but on the East and South sides of town, rather than the west. Antonius, you will take the west side tonight. Visit tavernas, walk the streets, see what the guards do, and above all listen. I shall talk to the western guards if an opportunity presents itself,” I said.
“Yes, Dio,” the two chorused.
“Nikolaos, you may leave. If you see the slave who was here earlier, send him up. Antonius, I am sure you will want to wait a moment.” Antonius smiled.
Once Nikolaos had left, Antonius ate, then I sent him away. “Try and pay attention in your wanderings,” I said. “It does us little good if you fail to notice the obvious. And if Fabricius is anything like you, he may have run the whole way here.”
Antonius chuckled at this idea. I could see his mind turning, trying to determine how long it would take him to run to Siracusae with my blood to sustain him. I wondered if Fabricius would be able to maintain his strength the whole way. It would certainly shorten the journey, and put him much closer behind the pigeon that had arrive the previous night.
When Antonius exited, the slave who had knocked earlier slipped in. I fed, and left him there to sleep, then went in search of Procurius. It was not hard to find him, he awaited me in the dining hall. It seemed to be the center of the inn, and even contained a few folks who were not guests but had merely stopped in for a late dinner.
“Dio,” Procurius said, bowing subtly. “If you will follow me?”
I respected his attempts at discretion, and followed him into his study. “Yes?” I said once the door had shut behind us.
“I wished to tell you what my friends heard on their journeys last night and today,” Procurius said.
“There is much talk of the madman who terrorized Placido’s taverna two nights ago. They say he is as large as two men, and can kill you with a look. They say he will pull both your arms off and rape your wife if you cross him. They say....”
“Yes, yes,” I interrupted, weary of the litany of Antonius’ imaginary deeds. “I know who they are afraid of. Why is it you tell me this? Do they actually know it is him?
Procurius shook his head. “No, Dio. All descriptions are largely than life, and sound like a monster from Hades. And Placido will not talk of it. His eyes go white and wide, and he says that it is over now and he does not wish to remember it.”
I nodded. I would not like to remember many of Antonius’ actions, and most of them had brought me some form of benefit. “Fine. Be careful that none of your friends associate this monster with anyone staying at your inn. There is only so much I can do to tame Antonius, and if a mob arrives demanding his head, he is likely to take all of theirs. And laugh.”
Procurius shuddered. “I will do so. I would not wish his doings to be associated with my inn. I am not certain that Placido’s taverna will recover from one night of his presence, and my inn has had him here for several.”
I nodded in appreciation.
“There is other news, however, though it is less talked about,” Procurius continued. “There are more guards near both the roads heading in and out of Messana. It is most likely that they are there to warn of any Roman forces that may head this way, yet no one has heard of any patrols, or any other precautions that would make such guards effective.”
This was curious. A handful of guards at a roadway would have a difficult time stopping a Roman legion. There were no large walls around Messana, and no gates that could be shut. I could think of one thing that a small guard force could do quite well: surrender.
“Thank you,” I said. “Do you have any friends among the guardsman? Any one who might know their official duties?”
Procurius shook his head. “Few of my friends reach that high, and those that do are not talking.”
I nodded. If I was right, those in charge would not want to alarm the citizens of Messana. Though a swift surrender would likely be less deadly or painful than a fight, as long as Antonius’ actions had not removed that course from Messana’s options.
“Continue your efforts. Nikolaos will gather what information he can, but he does not have your knowledge of the city. As for Antonius....” I shrugged. “I will simply hope that he learns something of use without causing further problems.” I turned to walk away, then stopped. “Tell me, did your friends hear of a Roman named Valerius?”
Procurius nodded slowly. “Several had been in negotiations with him. He was seeking a foothold in Messana from which he, or someone, could control the assault on Sicily. My friends were promised that they, their families, and their businesses would not be harmed if they cooperated with him. No one knows what has happened to him.”
I was surprised. If Procurius’ friends new who Valerius was, and where he had been staying, why had they not put together his disappearance with the horrors they gossiped about? “He is gone,” I said. “I saw him leave on a ship last evening. I am not certain he will be coming back.” It was as much warning as I could give without mentioning Antonius and his antics. I did not want Procurius to know that my underling may have ruined an opportunity for him and his associates to stay safe.
Procurius looked at me thoughtfully for several seconds, but did not contradict my statement. “That is good to know. I shall make certain to tell my friends not to expect any more visits from him.”
I nodded. “I appreciate your assistance, and your discretion. We shall talk more tomorrow.”
Procurius bowed, and opened the door for me. I left and went out into the night. I decided to go and watch the guardsmen posted near the western road. I doubted I would learn much from them, but perhaps one of their superiors would visit, and then I would have another target to pursue.
It was not too far from the inn. Procurius’ establishment was positioned well, the road on one side led to the western road to Messana, and the road on another side led to the southern road. It was that road we had taken from Katane, though we had called it the northern road, as it lay to the north of our home. Still, he had been fortunate in purchasing such a convenient location.
There were three guards visible when I came near the western road. A few peasants were wandering in and out of town unquestioned. They all looked tired and worn from their days work. A few pushed carts with the remains of their goods, but most simply trod along wearily. I remembered those days walking home with Neo after working in the field and wondered why none had a companion to lift their spirits.
There were few buildings out here at the edge of town. A disreputable looking inn or two, and some homes that had been well worn by the weather. No one stood outside any of them. The guardsmen did not appear to have a tower or official post, but one had brought a cart of some kind which they took turns sitting in while the others huddled around.
I stepped into the shadow of the last of the buildings, and became shadow myself. I loosened my grip on form, and merged with the darkness, as the darkness of my being, the part that sought information and power, that had relished Neo’s death, touched the darkness of the evening. Through the shadows I slipped until I found the one that lay under the guardsmen’s cart.
“This is dull,” said one. He appeared younger than the other two, though he may simply have been more clean shaven.
“True,” said a second, nodding, “but it pays well and there’s little danger.”
“What could we do if there was any danger? There are only three of us. If Rome marches an army down that road, I doubt they’d even take notice of us,” said the third, who looked older than the other two.
The young looking one lifted his head and grinned at this pronouncement. “Well, we’ve nothing to worry about, then. If nothing happens, we just sit here and get paid, and when Rome does come, we just stand aside and let them pass right by.”
The older guard chuckled at his companion’s response. “Unless they see us, in which case we’d better fight like the dickens.”
“Why can’t we just surrender?” the second asked.
“Do you know what Rome does to traitors?” asked the older guard.
“No,” said the second guard, “and neither do you.”
“True, but they have remarkable discipline. You don’t get remarkable discipline by being soft. And if you’d betray one side, why wouldn’t you betray the other?”
“But, then what are we supposed to do?” the younger guard asked.
“Exactly what we’ve been told,” the older one responded. “Ask them politely to wait a moment while we fetch the town council. Tell them that the council has something to say to them. Hopefully they’ll find that intriguing enough to stop and listen. And hopefully they’ll have someone with them who’s authorized to listen.”
“What do you mean ‘authorized to listen’?”
“If one of these peasants came up to us with a great story about Romans or Greeks marching across their fields and destroying everything, would we be able to do anything about it?” the older one asked.
“No,” his companions replied.
“Precisely,” the older one said. “We aren’t authorized to listen. Or, at least, we aren’t authorized to do anything about what we hear. We’d have to go ask the council for permission, which they likely wouldn’t give since there aren’t enough guards to be effective against anything but common smugglers.”
“So, if there’s just plain old guards at the front of the Roman forces, they’ll cut through us anyways?” Now his young companion sounded worried.
The old guard shook his head. “Not if they’re smart. If they’re smart, they’ll send someone to the back for the general. If he’s there. That’s what I mean. I don’t know if we’re important enough to warrant a general, or if they’ll just send off a bunch of troops and tell them to report back when the city is captured.”
“So, we have to hope that they send smart troops?” the younger guard asked.
The old guard nodded. “Or that, for some reason, someone from the city council happens to be out here when they approach.”
“But that never happens,” the second guard said. “They just sit in their shops, or their villas. They don’t even come out here to talk to us; they send a messenger instead.”
The old guard shrugged. “Such is the way of men with power. They forget how the world worked before they were powerful.”
All three nodded along together, and set in on a discussion of the foibles of the various council members. I deemed it a good time to leave. I floated from one shadow to the next until I reached the buildings at the fair side of the road. There, I reformed myself out of the shadows. It took some concentration. It had been relaxing to float as nothing but shadow. I wondered if such a process would calm Antonius any. When he and Theophilus had been fighting, it had seemed as though Theophilus was made partially of shadow, which might mean that Antonius could learn this ability, too. I was not sure I wanted to show it to him, however. The last thing I wanted was for Antonius to be able to sneak up on me, or anyone, unaware.
I walked along the streets, slowly making my way toward the docks and Placido’s taverna. I felt the need to apologize to him, but that would only make things more awkward. Instead, I would simply give him my custom, and perhaps ask what he knew about the local council members and their plans.
When I entered the taverna there were once again far too few customers for the number of slaves huddled near the back, beside what I now assumed was the door to the kitchen. One of them must have recognized me, for they all started talking to each other and glancing in my direction. The moment I sat down, one darted through the back door and another came to take my order.
“Signuri, will you have anything this evening? We have a lovely fish stew, fresh from the ocean.”
I shook my head. “Just wine, please,” I said.
He bowed, and walked quickly away. He returned quite promptly with a bottle of wine, and a glass. “Please have all you wish,” he said.
I nodded my thanks, and poured the wine. I had barely returned my cup to the table after my first sip, when the manager arrived. “I understand we owe you some thanks,” he said, bowing. He was gracious enough, but also shrewd. He looked at me as though to inquire ‘what do you want in return?’
“It was a small thing,” I said. “I hate to see such a fine establishment fall on hard time because of one man’s rash actions.”
“Nonetheless, I thank you. As do my slaves and servants. Without your generous gift, we would not have been able to afford the fish for today’s stew. Are you certain you would not like a bowl?” There was a measured look in his eye when he asked the question. Valerius had stayed here, however briefly. I did not know what this man knew, or guessed, about him.
“I thank you, no,” I said, wishing that I could at least eat a few bites to delay the man’s suspicions, but I would not have been able to keep it down long enough to fool him. “This wine is more than enough for me. But I do have some questions, if you have a few moments?”
He nodded, and smiled, much more at ease now that I had made some demands. “I am happy to answer anything I know the answer to,” he said.
I suspected that was not entirely true, but did not question the specifics of what he would answer. If he did not wish to share with me everything, so be it. There were other ways to get the information, if it was truly important. “Please, sit down,” I said, gesturing to the seat across from me. “My neck gets sore when I must look up for such a long time.”
He looked around, as though to make sure no one would object. The few customers seemed to be workers stopping in for a bite. A group near the back may have been philosophers for they seemed to be reciting speeches at one another. Apparently he saw no one he thought would object, for he sat down.
“Your name is Placido?” I asked, to be certain.
He nodded, slowly. “Did someone tell you that?”
I smiled. “Indeed. I am at Procurius’ establishment. He mentioned that there had been an incident here, but that it was no fault of yours.”
“I see,” said Placido. “May I ask, if you are staying at Procurius’ inn, why is it you come to take your wine here?”
“Because I enjoy taking a walk of the city, and getting a measure of it’s people,” I replied. “I learn very little if I am hidden away in the same inn all the time.”
Placido smiled, and chuckled. “If you are staying with Procurius, that is not necessarily true. He has been here so long that everyone knows him, and no one minds him. He hears things that cost the rest of us money to learn.”
Now it was my turn to smile, though I did not chuckle. “There do seem to be a lot of people who come by to visit,” I said. This was not something I knew, since I was asleep during the hours in which most of these visits would occur, but it fit with Placido’s comment, and I did not think that Procurius went running about town trying to keep track of his ‘friends’. “And what things do you hear? I am particularly interested in the guards sitting along the roads in and out of Messana. They do not appear to be doing anything, yet there they sit.”
Placido grimaced, and nodded slowly. “There is little information there. The town council has control of them, and each day and each evening they send out guards to sit near the edge of Messana. There are also a few who wander the piers looking bored, but they are not in uniform. I think the dock masters would likely object to obvious patrols of their area of control. They dislike the taxes that they must pay to the town already. I do not think they would countenance any more interference.”
That was interesting news. If I wanted to know of comings and goings from the water, it seemed I should make friends with one of the dock masters, or at least one of his servants. Servants frequently knew nearly as much as their master, and demand less in the way of payment. “It is good to know that the waterfront is held by free men,” I said. Placido nodded. “Are the men who guard the edges of town as free?”
Placido shook his head, then stopped himself. “Some are freemen, but all are in service to the town council, whether by slavery or by money.”
“Well, I hope they know what they are about. A few men cannot stand against any true force of might, especially one trained by Romans,” I said.
“Indeed,” Placido replied. “Many think they are there simply to turn Messana over to the Romans as quickly as possibly when they arrive. Though some think they are a decoy, and that the council has a huge force hidden somewhere that will come out at the first sight of Romans to defend us all.”
This was an intriguing notion. “Do you think that is likely?” I asked.
Placido shook his head. “The council is not know for being so bold, unless it is regarding new ways to raise taxes. I do not think they would want to take on the whole of the Roman army, or even a small part of it. And I can’t imagine there being any force that is better prepared than they are. Besides, Messana is hardly defensible from land. If they were attacking by sea, we might have a chance, but since we already know the Romans are marching across Sicily... well, I highly doubt they will get back in their ships just to come and attack us.”
I chuckled softly at the notion of Romans returning to the sea for battle. It was not their place of strength, but then Poseidon rarely let any mortal be strong in his domain. “So you believe the guards are merely there to give Messana over when the time comes?”
Placido nodded. “It is not a wholly bad plan. If the council can convince Rome we are of no threat, there will be far fewer deaths. Though I suspect they are forgetting that the Romans like to kill those who are in charge.”
I nodded wryly. “You are most likely correct. Men of power tend to forget that they could lose that power. I suspect they shall have some rude awakenings when the Romans do arrive.”
Placido shook his head. “I simply wish that....” He stopped, and looked around the room, eyes darting from place to place. Then he continued in a much lower tone. “I was talking to a Roman a few days ago. He said he was a Senator, and he could do something to help me, and a few others, if we helped him. Unfortunately the ... incident scared him off. Now I am worried that the town council will sell out those it does not like in order to keep its power.”
“They do not like you and your friends?” I asked.
Placido shook his head. “The town council is all aristocrats and men of Greek descent. They dislike anyone who is not Greek, or does not act as though they are. Some of us have families who have lived here since before the Greeks came. Some of us have heard the stories of the Greek conquest, and wish to make it easier this time.”
I nodded in understanding. “I, too, have heard stories. It is hard not too when one grows up in Sicily.”
There was a nod of empathy from Placido. “All the old folks want to talk about was how horrid it was in their day, when the Greeks were coming in and slaughtering, and taking over. How these Romans are nothing like as bad. Yet the Romans have defeated the Greeks at every turn. I only wish they’d turn their full attention to Greece and leave us alone.”
“Even if they did so, it would only be a matter of time. We are nearby. They have taken Italy. Even if they took Greece before Sicily ...”. I paused, shrugging. “It would not be long before they turned their attention here. Like Greece, they want their shores secure and their bellies full.”
Placido grunted, and nodded. “Still ... Soon enough we will be the old men telling tales of the terrible days of the Roman conquest to our grandchildren.”
I smiled and nodded, wishing only that that were true. “Soon enough.” There was a pause while we each reflected on that nebulous future. I could see Placido imaging the faces of those very same grandchildren, while I mourned the loss of my family. “There is another I wish to know about. Or rather, a person I wish to find,” I said after several moments of silence.
“Who?” asked Placido.
“A man named Fabricus. He will be coming from Siracusae, or may have already arrived. He is here to do some business for his master who,” I lowered my voice, “is a Roman.”
Placido’s eyes widened. “A Roman? Would this Roman protect us, as Valerius vowed to do?”
I shrugged. “I do not know for certain. But I have been told that he wants his man Fabricius found and returned to him. If we can do that, it will make a good impression for any bargaining we might wish to do.”
Placido nodded slowly. “And this Fabricius will be here soon? Before the Roman army arrives?”
I shook my head. “I cannot say for certainty, since I have heard little lately of the army’s movements, but he will be here soon.”
Placido leaned forward across the table. “Can he be caught and returned to Siracusae in time for such a bargain to be made?”
“I have the means to return him to Siracusae within a week. The faster he is found, the faster he can be returned,” I said.
Placido nodded slowly. “I will let my friends know. Do you have any description of him?”
I shook my head. Antonia had been most unhelpful in that regard. A name alone was little to go on, and knowing he was servanti might make it easier for me to find him, but it would do little to help anyone else. Except, perhaps, Antonius; though he would likely see it as a challenge. She had said that he was like Antonius, which may simply have meant he was servanti, or may have meant he looked like Antonius, or a had similar violent tendencies. I would try to watch for all of these options, but I did not know what she truly had meant. I also did not want to scare Placido with the idea of another Antonius. I did not think he would be so keen to look for him, then.
“Sadly, no. My friend warned that he might be stronger than normal, and perhaps aggressive if approached wrong, but did not think to give any description.” I shook my head. “Odd, really.”
Placido’s eyes had widened at the mention of strength and aggression, likely thinking of Antonius’ visit, but I did not want to send him into the search without some warning. It would do little good to make contact with the locals and then have them get killed. “I shall do what I can,” he said. “Though I make no promises where risks are involved.” He glanced over to the room that I assumed Antonius had used for his activities. “There has been too much of that for me lately.”
I nodded sympathetically. “Do not harm yourself, or your friends, in search for this Fabricius, but I would appreciate whatever you can tell me.” I placed several coins softly on the table.
Placido looked at them and quickly scanned the room. He placed his hand over them, and moved it discreetly back into his lap taking the coins with him. “If you come again tomorrow night, I will tell you what I have learned.”
I nodded. “I shall do so.”
He took this for a dismissal, and left me alone with my wine. I watched the other men in the taverna as I slowly drank each cup until the bottle was empty. The philosophers were the most interesting. They got both louder and more dramatic with each bottle of wine consumed. I suspected somewhere Dionysus was smiling on them, though that was probably not who they were praying to.
Having finished my wine, I left the taverna, noticing as I did so that several of the slaves gathered in the back giving me small bows. They were attempting to be discreet, and, fortunately, most of their customers were too drunk to notice. Still, I would have to mention it to Placido tomorrow night; I had drawn too much attention to myself already.
From the taverna, I made my way to the southern road. I wanted to see if the guards there were similar to those at the western side of town.
Again, as I approached the road leaving town, the buildings diminished. This time, it was far more abrupt. There were several businesses, and a few small villas along the southern edge of town, but suddenly there was a small creak, and all buildings stopped. The only thing I could see on the far side of the creek was a grape orchard that appeared connected to the last of the villas. It stretched into the distance, vines twining and full.
There were only two guards here, near the southern road. I was not certain why, the road itself seemed equally well trod, the ground packed down under thousands of feet, hooves, and wheels. Still, perhaps it was different in the daylight. I would have to send Nikolaos to each, perhaps have him count guards and travelers. Antonius would get bored long before a true count could be taken, and I did not wholly wish to rely on Procurius or Placido. It would be good, at least, to have information with which to confirm or deny that which they told me.
This time I walked to the shadow of a large citrus tree, and merged with it. It was odd how shadows had their own sense of self. A building’s shadow retained the grandeur or friendliness of the true thing. This tree’s shadow had a hint of lemon. It was refreshing, and enjoyable. It had been ages since I’d had a true lemon. I began to wonder if other shadows of food would impart similar tastes. It might be an odd way to have a taste of life once again.
As I moved nearer the two guards and their cart, I noticed something different about them. These two were not standing, chatting, and looking about as the three at the western road had done. They were staring straight ahead, looking directly down the roadway not attending to anything else. It was true that there were very few passerby at this hour of the night, but the two who did pass by, one fellow stumbling along out of town who did not look sturdy enough to make it very far, and one lady returning to her bordello, or if she was not, I wondered why she was out so late. The two guards paid no attention to these two. They did not stop them or question them, nor did they even turn their heads toward them. I supposed the staggering fellow would stagger across their sightline, but the lady walked behind them, her footsteps thumping softly in the dirt.
I moved closer, curious about why two men whose job it was to guard the city did not seem interested in their surroundings. Moving through the shadows, I noticed something I might not have if I had just walked up to them. The guards cast no shadows. The faint shadow of their cart flickered in the moonlight, but no tall shapes of man stood near it. As I came nearer, the shadows I moved through been to feel more dense, as though I were no longer moving through air, but water. It became harder, and when I was within a cart’s length I began to feel as though there was current pushing me backwards.
I paused, simply staying where I was, and the current faded, but when I tried to move upon its cessation, it simply returned. I waited, wondering if I should emerge from the shadow and speak to these men, wondering if it were safe for me here, wondering what would happen if I tried to move closer.
Although it was surely more prudent to slip away into the darkness, I choose to move forward through the shadows. I wanted to discover how strong this taint was. Moving forward was hard, as though swimming through an ever strengthening current. I had no body with which to push, no shores to aim for, no shoals to hold my feet. I felt as though I would surely drown, pushed down into the shadows until there was no escape. Then I stopped trying to fight the current and embraced it. It did push me under, deep within the earth where the fires of Hades sparkled, and then back up and out, for nothing that is not dead may remain in Hades, and I though I was not alive as I had been, nor was I dead as I often wished to be.
As I came up through the shadows to the surface, I could feel a presence. There was something ahead of me that was not simply another shadow. When I reached the ground below the guard’s cart, I felt it. There was some sort of wall within the shadow, and now that I was there under the cart and within its shadow, it did not want to let me go.
I could move within the confines of the cart’s shadow but no further. I paused, wanting to remain calm and think of a solution. In the silence I heard it, or rather I didn’t. The guards above were making no noise. They were not shuffling their feet, or tapping their fingers. They were not talking. As I listened closely I realized they were not even breathing.
I would learn nothing of the town council’s plan here. If the men did not talk, they could not speculate on their orders. The only question now, was how did I leave? This time instead of pushing against the edges of the shadow, I drifted around within its interior occasionally bumping up against the edges. At first I did not notice anything, when I bumped into an edge it felt solid and gently rebounded me toward the center. Then I began to hear something. When I bumped into the edges near the guards a soft ‘ow’ seemed to emanate from the shadow. Perhaps it was in my head? How did a shadow make a sound?
I decided to try pushing harder against on of these walls. I went toward the one on the left, he had cleaner feet, and pushed at the edge of the shadow near him. At first the ‘ow’ was soft, but it grew in volume and intensity the longer I pushed. Then I realized that the sound was not coming from outside the shadow but from within it.
“Hello?” I said, or thought. I wasn’t quite certain which.
The whining sound stopped for several moments, then began again. I pushed the edge once more, this time a little harder. Once the whining sound was continuous, I stopped.
“Hello?” I said again. “Are you one of the guards?”
“I ... hello?” said a voice.
There was no whining now, so I hoped that the whining and the voice were the same. “Are you one of the guards?” I repeated. If the guards had been forced into this state, rather than becoming shadow by choice as I had, then it made sense that the man was confused. Still, I did not want to spend the rest of the night saying ‘hello’.
“I ... yes,” said the voice.
He was not very communicative. I did hope he would offer more, soon. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”
“I ... I ... I don’t know. I’m supposed to be standing watch. Where am I?” he asked.
If I’d had lungs, and air in them, I would have sighed. The truth might turn him into a gibbering idiot, he could already barely answer a question, but I did not have time for gibbering. “Something has happened to you. I am trying to fix it. If you can tell me when you left your post? Or what happened last, it would help.”
“I ... alright. I ... I was talking with my partner, trying to figure out who was going to take the first watch. Our cart’s bigger than the other, so we usually take turns sleeping. There was a weird sound behind us, and we turned around to see what it was. And then ... I was here, and something was hurting me,” he said. “Was it you?”
“Was what me?”
“Hurting me. Were you the thing that was hurting me?” he asked.
“I think so. I was trying to get out of here, but you were in my way. I couldn’t see any way to go around you, and you didn’t move.” Accurate enough, if missing several pertinent details.
“Oh. Where did you want me to move?” he asked.
I wondered that myself. Then I looked at the clean feet in front of me. “Can you move back, just a little, a maybe slightly to your right?”
“I’ll try,” he said, hesitantly.
There was no whining, and no talking. I waited in the silence, wondering what would happen. Then, one of the toes of those clean feet wiggled.
“Hello?” came a voice from up above. “Where are you? I can’t see you.” Then he must have caught sight of his fellow guard for all of the sudden the feet to the other side were waving and wiggling around.
I needed to stop him. I was not sure what would happen if he took his friend away to see a physician, or simply jerked him too hard, but I was certain it was not good. I moved forward toward the space that the guard’s essence had occupied. The wall was still there. I pushed. It did not help.
The guard had moved out from under the cart’s shadow by retaking his own body, yet my body was here with me so I could not do that. I looked to the rapidly flailing feet on my right. I moved for them, hitting the other guards essence and pushing it to the side. As one of his feet slapped the ground under the edge of the cart, I touched it.
I flowed through him, and life flowed through me. A heart beat, lungs took in air, and eyes blinked rapidly. “Stop it!” I said in a voice not my own. “If you want your friend back, stop shaking him around. Just leave him be with his foot under the edge of the cart and I will help him get back as I did for you.”
The other guard blinked, but let go. “A... alright,” he said. “Be quick, please. This is really worrying.”
I snorted. He had no idea. “I will be as quick as he let’s me.” Then I placed my foot, the guard’s foot under the edge of the cart, and flowed down and out of him.
Now I was once again stuck in the shadow under the cart. I pushed gently at the edge where the second guardsman stood trying to get a reaction from his essence. I only bumped into a wall. I realized that he was probably in the same place I had pushed him to when I was trying to get out. Down here he would have no idea how to move himself, until I prompted him. I circled around and pushed from the other side, hoping that if it caused him to move at least he would be moving closer to the target.
When I made contact with guard there was no ‘ow’. Instead a low grunt or growl reverberated through the shadow. It was not nearly as menacing as the ones favoured by Antonius. I pushed again, and this time the grunt was louder and more annoyed.
“Hello?” I said, hoping this fellow would be faster to catch on the other one.
“Hello?” came a reply that was scarcely more than a grunt itself. “Who’s that? Is that you Isocrates?”
“No,” I said. “But I am a friend. I want to help you get out of this place.”
“Why?” came back the reply. It was a question of suspicion, not curiosity. “Who are you?”
“Someone else who is trapped in here.”
Another grunt. “Very well, I need to get out of this shadow and back to my body. But I’d like some better answers when this is done.”
I would have smiled. A man who paid attention and wanted answers. Fortuna may have been more helpful than I’d thought. “Can you move yourself backward, and slightly to your left?”
“There is some sort of wall behind me,” he said.
“Yes, but your foot, your true foot, is within that wall. If you can make contact with it, you will be returned to your body. Or at least that is what happened for your friend,” I said.
A grunt, then quiet. The next thing I heard was a gasp from up above, and the shuffling of the guard’s foot as he withdrew it from under the cart. A head appeared peering beneath the cart, but well out from under it. “You still there?” the second guard asked.
Thoughtful of him to be worried for my safety, but I could scarcely respond without a mouth. I tried again to breach the edge of the cart’s shadow, and this time I found no resistance. Relieved, I moved away into the shadow of the nearest tree, and resumed solid form.
As I walked toward the guards and their cart, both heads turned in my direction. This was a positive sign, though under other circumstances I would have been distressed at drawing so much attention to myself. Still, there was no one else here to see me, and I wanted to get more information from the two guards about what had happened.
“Hello,” I said softly as I drew near.
“Hello,” said the first guard, Isocrates. He looked puzzled, confused as to why a stranger was coming up to talk to them in the middle of the night.
The second guard merely nodded. “You him?”
I smiled, and nodded in return. “I am.”
The second guard crossed his arms and stared at me in what might have been an attempt at intimidation. “You gonna tell us who you are? How you got stuck down there with us? How you knew how to get out?”
I shook my head. “No, I am not. Or not tonight anyway,” I replied. “If I find you are trustworthy fellows, I may come by in the future and let you in on all my little secrets. Or at least the relevant ones.”
He grunted as though he had not really expected any other answer. “Then why did you bother to come back to talk to us? You know we’re gonna want answers.”
“You are not the only ones who want answers. I have some familiarity with operating in the shadows. You and your friend were sent there by someone against your will. I’d like to know who, and how,” I said.
The guard continued staring at me, as though prolonged eye contact would make me change my mind. His partner looked back and forth between the two of us, clearly wondering which he should support. I relaxed slightly, letting the second guard think his staring trick would work. He focused harder on me. Really, it was nearly too easy.
The greater the guard’s focus, the easier it was for me to slip in and touch his mind. ‘Tell him’, I whispered into his mind. ‘Tell him’. He blinked, trying to clear his head. He might have done it if he hadn’t immediately returned to staring at me. For such a cautious fellow, he was ignoring some important instincts. ‘Tell him’, I said again when he renewed his stare.
He shook his head roughly, pressing his temples as though massaging away a headache. “Alright, alright, I’ll tell you. What do you want to know?”
Isocrates appeared relieved at his friend’s decision. He stopped swiveling his head about and focused on me as well. I wondered if I could touch both at once.
“What happened to you just before you were sent into the shadows?” I asked.
They both blinked slowly. Isocrates expression appeared pained, the second guard appeared annoyed.
“There was someone,” Isocrates began, “someone came to tell us we were doing things wrong.”
“It was the council head, Theron,” the other said, growling. “He came to tell us that we were not to question anyone going in or out of town. I had the nerve to ask him what the point of having us out here was, then, and he got angry.”
Isocrates was nodding along with this, though his expression was more scared than angry. “He kept telling us to just be quiet and do our jobs. That no one was paying us to be out here thinking.”
His friend grunted and rolled his eyes. “Scared, is what he was. The councillor, I mean, not you, Isocrates. Scared we were going to step over some imaginary line and ruin whatever little plan he and his pals had concocted. So he ‘disposed’ of us. Not really sure how that would have played out come morning. What would’ve happened when we couldn’t return to barracks? When the shadows got smaller?”
“Nothing good,” I said. “Of that you may be certain.”
The guard chuckled. “Vague and ominous. I’m sensing a trend, Signuri.”
I smiled. “True enough, but right now it is not you who need worry about that trend.”
“Good,” he replied. “What else did you need to know?”
“Did you notice what he did, or said... anything that happened shortly before you found yourself among the shadows?”
The two guards looked at each other. Isocrates shrugged. I did not think he was going to be of much use. The encounter had frightened him too much for him to recall anything sensible. Thinking the encounter had seemed to make the second guard angry more than scared, but now there was a flush of warmth rising on his face.
“I didn’t really notice. He was staring at us, and yelling, and waving his arms. A few times he seemed to be yelling nonsense. I thought perhaps it was some obscure Greek dialect I didn’t know, so I didn’t try to figure out what it was. Then he sort of threw up his hands in exasperation, and that’s all I remember,” said the second guard. Isocrates was nodding.
This was nothing I was familiar with. There was no required arm movements, or phrases, or even single words when I invoked the shadows; it merely took a concentration of thought. Clearly this councillor was doing something different. This was good because it meant I did not have another direct competitor. This was bad because it meant I had no idea what he was doing.
They were still staring at me, so I touched their minds to see if they could recall the words, or gestures, that Theron had used. Both recalled seeing his hands wave about, forward and backward several times, but neither were paying sufficient attention for me to get a count of the movements. And both recalled the final upward gesture that the second guard had described as exasperation. As I watched it, now, knowing what had happened, I wondered if it weren’t a sort of pushing gesture, where Theron pushed their souls out and into the shadows.
The words were much harder to make out. Despite what the second guard had said, Isocrates was not the only one who was afraid. Their fear distracted them from exactly what Theron was saying, though he did also seem to be saying it quickly and somewhat under his breath. I caught the words ‘parakoloutho’ and ‘psychi’. They seemed to be repeated several times. I would have to ask Procurius if he knew those words.
I stopped staring at the two guards. They both blinked and looked confused. “I am staying at Procurius’ establishment near the west side of town. If you recall any more, you can come to see me there. I am only available in the evenings. What are your names, that I might tell him who to expect?” I asked.
“Isocrates,” said Isocrates.
“Kallistos,” said the second guard, grudgingly. “And who should we say we are calling on, when we come to Procurius’ establishment?”
I kept my smile to myself. It was a very well played question. “Signuri Decentius,” I replied. Kallistos had promise, I would see how far it went before I told him any more. “Isocrates. Kallistos,” I said, bowing briefly to each. “I thank you for your information. I hope we will meet again under more pleasant circumstances.”
The two bowed back to me. “And we thank you for rescuing us from that shadow before the sun came up,” Kallistos said. “Be assured, we will let you know anything else that occurs to us. I should not wish Theron to pull this trick on any other unsuspecting guards.”
“Indeed,” I said, shaking my head. I was less worried about Theron performing his trick on the other guards, and more worried about him performing it on Procurius, Placido, or one of their many friends, especially if they were in the midst of doing work for me. Regardless, I wanted to know all of how this shadow power worked, for I had thought only I, and Antonia, and perhaps Theophilius or Antonias had these abilities. I paused, and thought of Procurius’ words ‘those of Signuri Umbrae’s line’.
Farewells exchanged, I turned and walked back toward the city. I could see the begins of false dawn, so I made my quickly to Procurius’ inn. Once inside, I spied Antonius and Nikolaos, and gestured them to follow up to my room where the windows had been secured from sunlight.
“Good evening, Dio,” Nikolaos said as soon as the door had shut behind us. Antonius simply grunted.
“Good morning, Nikolaos,” I said, cocking my head slightly toward the well covered windows. Nikolaos blushed, not quite used to my way of viewing the day. “Tell me, did either of you encounter Fabricius? Or any word of him, or someone like him?”
Both shook their heads.
“Neither during day, nor night?” I clarified. Again they shook their heads. “Fine, what of the other tasks I set you/”
Antonius shrugged. “There was little happening at the docks. No ships came in during the day that I noticed. I did see the fellow that took Valerius tonight, though. Seems awfully quick.”
“Perhaps he was motivated to deliver him quickly,” I said.
Antonius smiled. “Perhaps he was. Well, glad he’s gone at any rate, him and his servanti. Don’t need them around messing things up.”
His servanti. I recalled the two men talking about the room in which Antonius had tortured Valerius on the first night I had visited the taverna. “Did you let one of his servanti go, Antonius?”
His eyes shifted about. “Yes, so? He was scared for his life. I’m sure he’s run off by now. I told him if I ever saw him again, I’d finish killing him.”
I was sure Antonius had said something to that effect. “Unfortunately for you, your threat did not seem to work. I saw this man two nights ago at the taverna trying to access the back room. I am not sure that he did get on the ship with Valerius, as I went straight to the ship after I left the taverna, and he was not there. This one you think will be so little trouble is likely still somewhere in Messana.”
Antonius ground his teeth in fury. He failed to realize that his threats did not work for long. The people he scared forgot just how horrid Antonius was once he had gone. After all, he was like something out of most nightmares, and few of us wish to remember our nightmares once we awaken.
“I will find him and make him pay,” Antonius growled. He turned to leave.
“No,” I said, “you will not.” Antonius stopped, turned, and glared at me. “If you do find him, you will follow him and see who he makes contact with. If you do not think you can do that without violence, you will return here and tell Nikolaos or Procurius where he is, and give them his description. I doubt he is working for Valerius still, since he seemed convinced that Valerius was still trapped in the room with you, but anyone he does make contact with may have links to Rome. We need to know where those links are if we are to exploit them properly.” It bothered me having to explain such obvious things to Antonius, but if I did not he would likely kill the man without realizing the damage he was doing.
Antonius stood there, glaring, his nostrils flaring in and out, his hands clenched. Nikolaos had backed away from him toward the far wall. That was a wise precaution, though I did not think that Antonius had any cares for Nikolaos just then. He was all fury that I would prevent him from taking what he deemed to be necessary violent actions. “And you think that this information will be of more use to us than our enemy’s fear?” Antonius asked.
I did not laugh, just yet. It was late, I was tired, and I did not want to have to fight Antonius. “Our enemy’s fear? The fact that the man is here, and was attempting to make contact with his master whom was last seen in your custody should show you well enough that fear is a temporary tool at best.”
Antonius sneered. “You use a lot of words, Dio, but what do they mean?”
“They mean your tactics do not work, Antonius. This is not a fight that can be won, and then walked away from. This is a battle. You cannot follow your enemies around scaring them at every turn. Unless you mean to kill them all, you must learn self control.”
Antonius clenched his fists and flexed his arms. “You have said that several times, Dio, yet I have not seen your famed ‘self control’ gain us any more information, or any fewer enemies, than my ‘tactics’.”
“Because it is a process,” I repeated. “And one we are in the middle of. Perhaps we should see if Procurius knows any farmers in need of some extra workers. Some good hard work might take the edge off your need to kill everyone you meet.”
Antonius chuckled. “Not everyone. You’re still alive, aren’t you, Dio? Him too,” he said, gesturing over at Nikolaos.
“For how long?” I asked.
Antonius shrugged. “For as long as you are useful to me. Which may not be much longer if all you do is lecture me about self control and forbid me to act. I will find this man. I will follow him. And when I have found out who his contacts are, I will kill him. Is that acceptable to you, Dio?”
I sighed. It was a fairly reasonable plan coming from Antonius. “You will follow him until you have found at least five of his contacts,” I said. “Not one or two, but a minimum of five. Hopefully that way there will be at least one or two who have useful information. And do not assume everyone he talks to is a contact.”
Antonius snorted. “I know the difference between ordering dinner, and plotting, Dio. I have your example to know the latter.”
I decided to take it as a compliment, it would help keep me from beating Antonius where he stood. I turned my attention to Nikolaos, not wanting to tempt myself further with Antonius and his insolence.
“And what did you see?” I asked.
“People coming, and people going. The guards changed just past dawn, and near sunset. A man came out to talk to both sets just after the new guards came. It was the same man both times. The guards still would not talk to me. I did ask them where my master had gone, when the man came again to talk to night guards. They directed me down a street, but did not go with me. I don’t know if they knew where he had gone or not,” Nikolaos replied.
Again I was impressed with Nikolaos’ instincts. He had realized the man was important after only two appearances, and he was quite likely correct. I was almost certain that it was this Theron, the councillor, checking on all the guards to make certain they were cooperative. I began to wonder if his aims were different from the council’s, since he had not sent home the two he deemed unacceptable, but rather tricked them and tried to kill them.
“Did you make note of the people, or a count?”
Nikolaos shuffled awkwardly. “I started to, Dio, but there were so many going each way, and I did not want to make a show of writing things down. It did not seem an unusual amount, though, nor did it seem like more were going or coming. And it was mostly peasants.” He paused, brow furrowed in thought. “That may have been one difference, Dio. Most of the rich folks I saw were leaving, not arriving.”
I nodded, slowly, though I did not know why this should be. Perhaps they felt they would be safer in isolated villages that the armies of Rome might overlook, rather than a large city which Rome would most certainly come to attack. It was a reasonable assumption.
“Thank you, Nikolaos. I am glad you have been paying attention,” I said. Antonius growled at my praise, but did not move. “Tomorrow, do the same, but when you see that man again, try to follow him. I believe he is one of the councillors, and he may be dangerous to us. Do not let him see you. It may be best to follow him only for a short while. I have seen men on whom he used a potent spell that nearly trapped me as well.”
Nikolaos gasped. Antonius chuckled. I wondered if Antonius would follow Nikolaos, and Theron. It might be a good idea. I decided to see what Antonius deemed important. Whether he chose to track down the errant servanti and his associates, or whether he followed Theron who might have powers greater than my own.
“I am tired,” I said, and sat down on my bed suddenly realizing just how tired I was. “Please leave. If you see Procurius, send him up. I am not to be awakened, but if he arrives before I sleep, I would like to speak with him.”
“Yes, Dio,” said Nikolaos. Antonius merely grunted and shoved the door open. Nikolaos looked at me, his expression seeking permission.
“Go,” I said. “And do send Procurius up.”
Nikolaos nodded, and left, managing to open the door without shoving it.
I lay down on my bed, tiredness aching throughout my body. I wanted to open the windows and see the dawn, for I was nearly certain that it had already come, but I knew it would be fatal. It was one of the few things Signore Umbrae had permitted his servants to tell me when I awoke in his villa for the first time. It was as though my body new it was daylight outside, and sought sleep relentlessly in order to keep me from temptation. I did not close my eyes, for I wanted to allow a few minutes for Nikolaos to deliver his message to Procurius. I knew Procurius would come, it was only if he would come soon enough.
The door opened, slowly and softly. “Dio Decentius?” said Procurius from the doorway. “Are you still awake?”
I sat up in answer to the question. “Buon giorno, Procurius.”
“Buon giorno, Signuri Decentius. I am surprised to see you still awake,” Procurius said.
“Indeed. I am somewhat surprised at it myself. But there were things that needed to be said, so I have remained awake to speak with you,” I said.
Procurius bowed. “I am honoured.”
“Don’t be. I need you to set watch on Antonius. I have set him a task, but I believe he will likely forsake it in favour of following Nikolaos. If he does so, someone needs to find and follow the last remaining servant of Valerius.”
“Where was he last seen?” asked Procurius.
“I saw him two nights ago at Placido’s taverna. He was inquiring about the back room. I am sure someone there will remember him,” I said. “He had a companion, and was trying to find a way to assist his master, whom he still believed to be looked in the taverna’s back room. Whether he has realized his mistake by now, or not, I do not know.”
“But anyone he looks to for alliance may be allied with Rome in other fashions as well,” Procurius said.
“Precisely. It is a source we must use to our advantage.” And not one I had wanted to give Procurius so quickly, but I had few enough resources here, and he had proved himself helpful.
“I shall see that it is done, Dio.” He bowed again. “I will let you rest. There is nothing of urgency I have to tell you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “And Procurius, tomorrow I will ask you about councillor Theron.”
His eyes widened. “I see. I will learn what I can while the sun shines.”
It was a good answer, though I wondered what he was afraid of. I lay back, and heard the door shut. As soon as my eyes shut, I slept.