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City on Fire
A Novel of Pompeii
By Tracy L. Higley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Tracy Higley
All rights reserved.
Rome Nine years later
Night fell too soon, bringing its dark celebrations to the house of Valerius.
Ariella lingered at the fishpond in the center of the dusky atrium, slipping stale crusts to the hungry scorpion fish one tiny piece at a time. The brown-and-white-striped creature snapped at its prey with precision, the venomous spines along its back bristling.
The fish food ran out. There was no delaying the inevitable.
Let the debauchery begin.
Nine years a slave in this household, nine annual tributes to Dionysius. The Greek god, embraced by the Romans and renamed Bacchus, apparently demanded every sort of drunken vice performed in his honor. And Valerius would not disappoint the god.
Indeed, Valerius flaunted his association with the mystery sect, though its practice was frowned upon by the government and disdained by most citizens.
Ariella inhaled, trying to draw strength from the deadly fish her master kept as a pet. For they were both kept as such, weren't they? The scorpion fish's body swayed like a piece of debris, its disguise needless in its solitary enclosure.
Within an hour Valerius's guests poured into the town house, sloshed up most of the wine she'd placed on low tables in the triclinium, and progressed to partaking of the extract of opium poppies, tended in red-tinged fields beyond the city. The sweet, pungent smoke hung like a smothering wool toga above their heads.
A traveling guild of actors somersaulted into the room, their lewd songs and costumes an affront to decency and a delight to the guests. Ariella lowered her eyes, embarrassment still finding her even after all she had endured, and cleared the toppled cups and soiled plates. She passed Valerius, sprawled on a gold-cushioned couch, and he rubbed a hand over her calf. Her muscles twitched like the flank of a horse irritated by a fly.
Her master's high-pitched laugh floated above the general noise of the intoxicated. Ariella winced. Valerius performed tonight for his honored guest, another politician from the south somewhere.
"Perhaps we shall make a man of you yet, Maius." Valerius waved his slender fingers at the larger man. "I shall take you out into the city and declare to all that you are one of us."
The politician, Maius, reddened.
Ariella leaned over him to refill his cup. Clearly, he was here to humor Valerius but not align himself with the vile man.
When the actors had twirled their final dance and claimed applause, the herd of guests took their revelry to the streets. Valerius dragged Ariella through the door, always his special companion this night. Her breath caught in her throat. It was not the streets she feared. It was what would come after.
Why could she not be strong, like her mother?
The insanity built to a crescendo as they wound their torch-lit way toward the Via Appia, where the procession would climax. The Bacchanalians howled and pushed and tripped, their vacant eyes and laughing mouths like the painted frescoes of her nightmares. Hair disheveled, carrying blazing torches, they danced along the stones, uttered crazed predictions, and contorted their bodies impossibly. Back in Jerusalem, her father would have said they had the demons in them. Here in Rome, Ariella rarely thought of such things.
It was enough to survive.
They passed a cluster of slaves, big men, most of them, herded into a circle amidst a few flaming torches. Strange time of day for a slave auction. Ariella met the eyes of a few, but their shared circumstance did not give them connection.
Snatches of speech reached her. A gladiator troupe. A lanista, the trainer for the troupe, called out numbers, making new purchases. A memory of home flashed, the day she had been sold to Valerius's household manager. She had thought herself fortunate then, when so many others were sold off to entertain in the arena. Foolish child.
The unruly procession passed the men bound for death and Ariella's gaze flitted through them. Did they feel the violent shortness of their lives pressing down on them? Before her stretched nothing but endless misery. Was their lot not preferable?
A muscled slave with the yellow hair of the west shifted and she glimpsed a face beyond him. Her blood turned to ice, then fire.
She yanked away from Valerius's sweaty grip. Stood on her toes to peer into the men.
Valerius pulled away from the raucous group, wrapped a thin arm around her waist, and brought his too-red lips to her ear. "Not growing shy after all these years, are we?" His baby-sweet voice sickened her.
She leaned away. Caught another look at the boy.
Turn your head. Look this way!
Valerius tugged her toward the road, but her feet had grown roots. She must be sure.
But then he turned, the boy about to be a gladiator, and she saw that it could not be Micah. He was too young—older than she remembered her brother, but not old enough to be him, though the resemblance was so strong that perhaps he was a distant cousin. In fact, the boy looked more like her than Micah. If she were to cut her hair, she could pass for his twin.
She let Valerius pull her back to the procession, but the moment had shaken her. Memories she had thought dead turned out to be only buried, and their resurrection was a knife-blade of pain.
She sleepwalked through the rest of the procession, until their drunken steps took them to the caves on the Via Appia, dark spots on the grassy mounds along the road where greater abuses could be carried out without reprisals.
Valerius and his guest, Maius, were arguing.
Ariella forced her attention to the men, leaving off thoughts of Micah and home. It did not pay to be ignorant of Valerius's moods.
"And you would sully the position you've been given by your dissolution!" Maius's upper lip beaded with sweat and he poked a finger into Valerius's chest.
Valerius swiped at the meaty finger. "At least I am not a coward! Running home to pretend to be something I am not."
"You think me a coward? Then you are a fool. I know how to hold on to power. Yours will wash away like so much spilled wine."
Valerius cackled. "Power? Ah yes, you are a mighty man down there in your holiday town by the sea. I daresay you couldn't put a sword to a thief if he threatened your family!"
Ariella took a step backward. Valerius misjudged Maius, she could see. The man's eyes held a coldness that only came from cruelty.
Before Valerius could react, Maius had unsheathed a small dagger from his belt. He grabbed for a nearby slave, one of Valerius's special boys, wrapped a meaty arm around his forehead, and in one quick move sliced the slave's neck. He let the boy fall. Valerius screeched.
"There." Maius tossed the dagger at the smaller senator's feet and glared. "I owe you for one slave. But perhaps now you will keep your pretty mouth shut!"
"What have you done?" Valerius bent to the boy and clutched at his bloody tunic. "Not Julius! Not this one!"
The moon had risen while they marched, and now it shone down on them all, most of the guests taken with their own lustful pursuits and senseless to the drama between the two men. Ariella traced the path of moonlight down to her feet, to the glint of iron in the dirt. Maius's dagger.
She had not held a weapon for many years. Without thought she bent and retrieved it. Held it to her side, against the loose fabric of her robe.
She could not say when the idea first planted itself in her mind. Perhaps it had been back in the city when she had seen the boy who was not Micah. Perhaps it only sprang to life at this moment. Regardless, she knew what she would do.
She would not return to Valerius's house. Not participate once more, behind closed doors, in the mystery rites that had stolen her soul. Her nine years of torture had come to an end.
No one called out, no one pursued. She simply slipped away, into the weedy fields along the Via Appia, back to the city, the dagger hidden under her robe. She unwrapped the fabric sash at her waist and wound it around her hair. A few quiet questions and she found the yard where the newly purchased gladiators awaited their assignment. A little flirtation with the loutish guard at the gate, enough to convince him that she was one of the many Roman women obsessed with the fighters, and he let her in with a wicked grin.
She found the boy within moments. His eyes widened as though she were his first opponent. She pulled him to the shadows, to the catcalls of his fellow fighters.
The dagger was steady in her hand and sharp enough to slice through large hanks of hair. The boy watched, wide-eyed, as she disrobed in front of him, modesty ignored.
He was young enough to easily convince.
Within minutes she had donned his leathers and taken his place on the ground with the other fighters. The boy stumbled across the yard, awkward in his new robes and headscarf.
It was done.
Elana would be proud.
Pompeii June AD 79
In the protective embrace of Mother Vesuvius, the city of Pompeii flourished like a well-fed child, glorying in the wealth that was Rome and offering one of the Empire's ex-politicians an excellent place to hide.
Cato waited in the cobbled street outside his newly purchased wine shop, shielding his eyes against the fiery morning sun. The expected delivery of new amphorae should have arrived by dawn. Already carts rattled over familiar ruts in the center of the street, and shoppers hummed along the raised sidewalks, making purchases and trading gossip. But no sign of his delivery. He shook his head at the inefficiency, then shrugged.
He should relax. It was a vacation town, after all.
The flaking red paint on the wooden sign outside the shop touted the former owner's skills. Cato scraped at it, adding repaint the sign to his unending mental list of tasks.
Back inside the shop, he blinked to adjust to the dim light. His only employee, Remus, clucked his tongue over the rows of dusty amphorae that leaned against the stone wall and held up a dingy rag. "Not getting clean, master. Not getting clean."
Cato had reminded Remus not to call him "master" a dozen times since hiring him last week, but as a former slave, the man couldn't seem to break the habit.
"So we'll have a pot-breaking holiday after we get the wine into the new amphorae, Remus." He grinned. "Anyone whose head you'd like to invite to the event?"
Remus waved a rag in Cato's direction and shook his head, as though refusing to be baited. "I'm at peace with the world, master. At peace with the world."
Cato should be so fortunate.
In truth, the orderly rows of tan pots, balanced on their pointed ends and leaning against the walls of the shop or resting above in wooden cradles, pleased Cato very much, in spite of the accumulated grime from months of neglect. He had acquired the shop, the vineyard on the outskirts of town, and the home of the former owner all at a good price, and planned to make a success of the whole enterprise in short order. In the weeks of transition from Rome to Pompeii he had concentrated on the success ahead and refused to acknowledge the failure behind.
He ran a finger over the dusty terra-cotta. "Forget the pots, Remus. Let's get the rest of the place clean before the crowds start trampling us down."
Remus snickered. "Grand plans you have for the place, master."
Cato crossed the shop and slapped Remus on the shoulder. "That's the only way to move forward, my friend. Plan for success." He turned to the filthy shop before Remus could see the uncertainty in his eyes. Uncertainty and perhaps not a little desperation.
A voice from the doorway filled the shop, and Cato imagined the pots rattled on their shelves. "Making good progress, I see."
He laughed at the barbed words. "Be careful, Mother, or I'll put a rag in your hand."
She huffed. "I agreed to follow you to Pompeii for the weather, remember? You'll not find me scrubbing floors on my knees, no matter how anxious you are to make this mad idea work."
With the light of the morning behind her, Octavia could have passed for a woman half her age. Still stunning, with dark hair falling in waves around delicate features that belied her inner strength, she had left behind a list of potential suitors in Rome—crestfallen noblemen, heartbroken that Rome's most recent widow wasn't interested in aligning herself with a new house. Cato observed her for a moment, grateful she had agreed to come—and to bring his youngest sister with her.
"Why are you staring at me, you silly boy?" She swept into the shop, holding her shining white stola around her, as though she could protect it from the grime. The red sash at her waist and the clustered emeralds at her throat seemed as out of place as a long-stemmed rose tossed into a trash heap.
"Just wondering what a woman of your advanced age is doing out of the house at such an early hour."
Octavia's gaze would have cut down a lesser man, but Cato laughed, kissed the top of her head, and answered his own question. "Looking beautiful, as always."
She sighed. "Why are we here, Quintus?"
Behind him, Remus chuckled. Since learning Cato's praenomen, he seemed to find it amusing that this eldest son had been given the name of "fifth."
Cato ignored his mother's question as to why they had come. She knew the answer. And rehearsing it would challenge his optimism, already stretched taut.
"The shop will be cleaned up soon enough." He surveyed the red-and-gold frescoed walls hidden beneath their layer of soot. "And then it will be a grand success."
Octavia sniffed, as though the odor of failure lingered around the shop and even around Cato himself, overwhelming her own perfume. "You could have had grand success in Rome."
Cato forced a smile and turned away. "Ah, well. They will have to struggle along without me, I suppose."
She sighed again. "At least tell me you will find a wife here. There are many good families with holiday villas—"
"Ha! Between you and Isabella, I am surrounded by women! Why, by all the gods, would I want to acquire another?" He pulled a small wooden box from under the front counter and dug through the paltry supply of coins, readying the payment for the new amphorae. A twinge of concern bloomed in his chest. The purchases of the shop and fields and home had all but annihilated the family fortune, and there was little left for building the business. Along with his list of tasks, the list of costs was also lengthening. Would there be enough? He slammed the lid on the money box and clenched his fist around the coins. There must be.
As though his heart were the fertile black soil of his vineyard, the determination to thrive here had taken root inside him like a stubborn vine, curling around his heart, drawing nourishment from the pain of the past, longing to bear fruit.
He turned back to Octavia. "Don't worry, Mother. Portia is sure to give you all the grandchildren your arms can hold."
The marble of his mother's stately features seemed to quiver and she dropped her eyes. Cursing his mistake, he set the coins on the counter, crossed to where Octavia stood in the center of the shop, and gripped her arms. "She still believes she cannot conceive?" Cato's eldest sister had been a resident of Pompeii for five years before them, after meeting Lucius while vacationing here and marrying him in what seemed an instant. The two were exceedingly in love—and still childless.
Octavia glanced at Remus, as though reluctant to share family secrets in front of the help. As if on cue, Remus began whistling a tune, a bawdy melody straight out of the taverns. Octavia's eyes returned to Cato and glistened. "She despairs. As do I."
He patted her arm. "The gods will smile, Mother. Portia is a good woman."
She turned away and straightened the folds of her stola.
Cato went to the doorway again, still looking for his overdue delivery. The sea-tinged air was already heavy with the coming heat of the day, and the cloth awning jutting from his shop did little to relieve it. The shoppers who pushed past him seemed damp and harried.
His was only one of the busy streets that crisscrossed Pompeii in a grid that held both shops and homes, some little more than huts and others with doors opening to grand villas. The city moved with surprising intensity, even in these early summer months when the vacationers were fewer, many choosing to remain in Rome while the weather was pleasant.
Excerpted from City on Fire by Tracy L. Higley. Copyright © 2013 Tracy Higley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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