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Alexander Democedes Amandinus stood at the Door of Death waiting for the chance to learn more about life. Never having enjoyed the games, he had come reluctantly. Yet now he was transfixed by what he was witnessing, amazed into his very marrow. He stared at the fallen girl and felt an inexplicable triumph.
The mad intensity of the mob had always filled him with an unrest. His father had said some found release in watching violence done to others, and Alexander had thought of this when he had seen, on occasion, an almost sick relief in faces among the crowd. In Rome. In Corinth. Here, in Ephesus. Perhaps those who beheld the horrors were thankful to the gods that it was not they who faced the lions or a trained gladiator or some other more grotesque and obscene manner of death.
It was as though thousands came to find a catharsis in the bloodletting, that this embracing of planned mayhem protected each of them from the growing chaos of an increasingly corrupt and arbitrary world. No one seemed to notice that the stench of blood was no less strong than the stench of lust and fear permeating the very air they breathed.
Amandinus’ hands gripped the iron bars as he looked out upon the sand where the young woman now lay. She had come out from among the other victims—those who walked to their deaths—calm and strangely joyful. He could not look away from her, for he had seen in her something extraordinary, something that defied description. She had sung and, for the briefest moment, her sweet voice had drifted on the air.
The mob had overwhelmed that sweet sound, rising en masse as she had continued forward, walking across the sand serenely, straight toward Alexander. His heart had pounded harder with each step she took. She had been rather plain in appearance, and yet there had been a radiance about her, an aura of light surrounding her. Or had it just been his imagination? When the lioness had hit her, Alexander had felt the blow himself.
Now, two lions fought over her body. He winced as one beast sank its fangs deeply into her thigh and began to drag her away. The other lioness sprang, and the two rolled and clawed at one another.
A little girl in a ragged, soiled tunic ran screaming past the iron-gridded gate. Alexander gritted his teeth, trying to harden himself against the sound of those terrified cries. In trying to protect the girl, the child’s mother was taken down by a jewel- collared lioness. Alexander’s hands whitened on the iron-grated door as another lioness raced after the child. Run, girl. Run!
The sight of so much suffering and death assaulted and nauseated him. He pressed his forehead against the bars, his heart pounding.
He had heard all the arguments in favor of the games. The people sent to the arena were criminals, deserving of death. Those now before him belonged to a religion that encouraged the overthrow of Rome. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder if a society that murdered helpless children did not deserve to be undone.
The screams of the child sent a chill through Alexander’s body. He was almost grateful when the lioness’ jaws closed upon that small throat, extinguishing the sound. He let out his breath, hardly aware he had been holding it, and heard the guard behind him laugh harshly.
"Hardly a mouthful in that little one."
A muscle jerked in Alexander’s jaw. He wanted to shut his eyes to the carnage before him, but the guard was watching now. He could feel the cold glitter of those hard dark eyes shining through the visor of the polished helmet. Watching him. He would not humiliate himself by showing weakness. If he was to become a good physician, he had to overcome his sensibilities and aversions. Hadn’t his teacher, Phlegon, warned him often enough?
"You have to harden yourself against those tender feelings if you are to succeed," he’d said more than once, his tone ringing with disdain. "After all, seeing death is part of a physician’s lot in life."
Alexander knew the older man was right. And he knew that, without these games, he would have no opportunity to further his studies of the human anatomy. He had gone as far as he could by studying drawings and writings. Only by performing vivisection could he learn more. Phlegon had been well aware of his aversion to the practice, but the old physician had been adamant, closing him in a trap of reason.
"You say you want to be a physician?" he had challenged. "Then tell me, good student, would you have a physician perform surgeries without firsthand knowledge of human anatomy? Charts and drawing are not the same as working on a human being. Be thankful the games give you such opportunity!"
Thankful. Alexander watched as, one by one, the victims went down until the horrific sounds of terror and pain were deadened by the relative quietude of feeding lions. Thankful? He shook his head. No, that was one thing he would never feel regarding the games.
Suddenly another sound more dangerous than the lions began to hum. Alexander recognized it quickly—the ripple of boredom, the growing swell of discontent among the spectators. The contest was over. Let the beasts gorge themselves in the dark interiors of their cages rather than tax the crowd with tedious feasting. A dark restlessness swept through the stands like a fire in a cheap tenement.
The warning was quickly heeded by the editor of the games.
The beasts heard the gates swing open and dug in their claws and teeth more fiercely as armed handlers came out to drive them back into their cages. Alexander prayed to Mars, that the men would work quickly, and to Asklepios that there might be the flicker of life in at least one of the victims. If not, he would have to remain here until another opportunity presented itself.
Alexander was not interested in the drama of separating feeding animals from their kills. His gaze swept across the sand, searching for a survivor, any survivor, holding little hope that there was one. His eyes fell upon the young woman again.
No lion was near her. He found that curious, since she was far from the men driving the animals toward the gates. He saw a flicker of movement. Leaning forward, he squinted his eyes against the glare. Her fingers moved!
"Over there," he said quickly to the guard. "Near the center."
"She was the first one attacked. She’s dead."
"I want to take a look at her."
"As you wish." The guard stepped forward, put two fingers to his lips, and gave two quick, sharp whistles. The guard made a signal to the plumed visage of Charon, who danced among the dead. Alexander watched the costumed actor leap and turn toward the fallen girl. Charon leaned down slightly, his feathered, beaked head turned as though listening intently for some sound or sign of life, all the while waving his mallet around in the air theatrically, prepared to bring it down if there was. Seemingly satisfied that the girl was dead, he grabbed her arm and dragged her roughly toward the Door of Death.
At the same moment, a lioness turned on the animal handler who was driving her toward a tunnel. The crowd came to its feet, shouting in excitement. The man barely managed to escape the animal’s attack. He used his whip expertly to drive the enraged lioness back away from the child she had been eating and toward the tunnel to the cages.
The guard took advantage of the distraction and swung the gate at the Door of Death wide. "Hurry up!" he hissed and Charon ran, dragging the girl into the shadows. The guard snapped his fingers and two slaves hurriedly grasped her by her arms and legs and carried her into the dimly lit corridor.
"Easy!" Alexander said angrily as they tossed her up onto a dirty, bloodstained table. He brushed them aside, sure that these oafs had finished her off with their rough handling.
The guard’s hard hand clamped firmly on Alexander’s arm. "Six sesterces before you cut her open," he said coldly.
"That’s a little high, isn’t it?"
The guard grinned. "Not too high for a student of Phlegon. Your coffer must be full of gold to afford his tutelage." He held out his hand.
"It’s emptying rapidly," Alexander said dryly, opening the pouch at his waist. He didn’t know how much time he had to work on the girl before she died, and he wasn’t going to waste any haggling over a few coins. The guard took the bribe and withdrew, three coins in reserve for Charon.
Alexander returned his attention to the girl. Her face was a raw mass of torn flesh and sand. Her tunic was drenched in blood. There was so much blood, in fact, he was sure she was dead. Leaning down, he put his ear near her lips, amazed as he felt the soft, warm exhalation of life. He didn’t have much time to work.
Motioning to his own slaves, he took a towel and wiped his hands. "Move her back there away from the noise. Gently!" The two slaves hastened to obey. Phlegon’s slave, Troas, stood by watching as well. Alexander’s mouth tightened. He admired Troas’ abilities, but not his cold manner. "Give me some light," Alexander said, snapping his fingers. A torch was brought close as he bent over the girl on the slab in the dim recesses of the corridor.
This was what he had come for, his one purpose for enduring the games: to peel back the skin and muscle from the abdominal area and study the organs revealed. Stiffening his resolve, he untied the leather case and flipped it open, displaying his surgeon’s tools. He selected a slender, razor-sharp knife from its slot.
His hand was perspiring. Worse, it was shaking. Sweat broke out on his forehead as well. He could feel Troas watching him critically. Alexander had to move quickly and learn all he could within the space of the few short minutes he would have until the girl died of her wounds or his procedure.
Silently, he cursed the Roman law that forbade dissection of the dead, thus forcing him to this grisly practice. But how else was he to learn what he had to know about the human body? How else could he achieve the skill he had to have to save lives?
He wiped the sweat from his brow and silently cursed his own weakness.
"She will feel nothing," Troas said quietly.
Clenching his teeth, Alexander cut the neckline of the girl’s clothing and tore the bloodstained tunic to the hem, laying it open carefully and exposing her to his professional assessment. After a moment, Alexander drew back, frowning. From breasts to groin, she was marked only by superficial wounds and darkening bruises.
"Bring the torch closer," he ordered, leaning toward her head wounds and reassessing them. Deep furrows were cut from her hairline down to her chin. Another cut scored her throat, just missing the pulsing artery. His gaze moved slowly down, noting the deep puncture wounds in her right forearm. The bones were broken. Far worse, however, were the wounds in her thigh where the lioness had sunk in her fangs and tried to drag her. Alexander’s eyes widened. The girl would have bled to death had not sand clogged the wounds, effectively stanching the flow of blood.
Alexander drew back. One swift, skillful slice and he could begin his study. One swift, skillful slice and he would kill her.
Perspiration dripped down his temples, his heart pounded heavily. He watched the rise and fall of her chest, the faint pulse in her throat, and felt sick.
"She will feel nothing, my lord," Troas said again. "She is not conscious."
"I can see that!" Alexander said tersely, flashing the servant a dark look. He stepped closer and positioned the knife. He had worked on a gladiator the day before and learned more about human anatomy in the space of a few minutes than in hours of lectures. Thankfully, the dying man had never opened his eyes. But then, his wounds had been far worse than these.
Alexander closed his eyes, steeling himself. He had watched Phlegon work. He could still hear the great physician speaking as he cut expertly. "You must work quickly. Like this. They are nearly dead when you get them, and shock can take them in an instant. Don’t waste time worrying about whether they feel anything. You must learn all you can with what little time the gods give you. The moment the heart stops, you must withdraw or risk the anger of the deities and Roman law." The man on whom Phlegon had been working had lived only a few minutes before bleeding to death on the table to which he was tied down. Yet, his screams still rang in Alexander’s ears.
He glanced at Troas, Phlegon’s invaluable servant. The fact that Phlegon had sent him along spoke loudly of the master physician’s hopes for Alexander’s own future. Troas had assisted Phlegon many times during the past and knew more about medicine than most practicing free physicians. He was an Egyptian, dark of skin and with heavy-lidded eyes. Perhaps he held the mysteries of his race.
Alexander found himself wishing he hadn’t been afforded so great an honor.
"How many times have you overseen this done, Troas?"
"A hundred times, perhaps more," the Egyptian said, his mouth tipping sardonically. "Do you wish to stand aside?"
"Then proceed. What you learn here today will save others tomorrow."
The girl moaned and moved on the table. Troas snapped his fingers, and Alexander’s two servants stepped forward. "Take her by the wrists and ankles and hold her still."
She uttered a rasping cry as her broken arm was drawn up. "Yeshua," she whispered, and her eyes flickered open.
Alexander stared down into dark brown eyes filled with pain and confusion, and he couldn’t move. She was not just a body to work on. She was a suffering human being.
"My lord," Troas said more firmly. "You must work quickly."
She muttered something in a strange tongue and her body relaxed. The knife dropped from Alexander’s hand and clattered onto the stone floor. Troas took a step around the slab table and retrieved it, holding it out to him again. "She has fainted. You may work now without concern."
"Get me a bowl of water."
"What do you mean to do? Revive her again?"
Alexander glanced at that mocking face. "You dare question me?"
Troas saw the imperiousness in the young, intelligent face. Alexander Democedes Amandinus might only be a student, but he was free. No matter the Egyptian’s own experience or skill, he acknowledged resentfully that he himself was still a slave and dared not challenge the younger man further. Swallowing his anger and pride, Troas stepped back. "My apologies, my lord," he said without inflection. "I only meant to remind you that she is condemned to die."
"It would seem the gods have spared her life."
"For you, my lord. The gods spared her that you might learn what you need to become a physician."
"I will not be the one to kill her!"
"Be rational. By command of the proconsul, she is already dead. It’s not your doing. It was not by word of your mouth that she was sent to the lions."
Alexander took the knife from him and put it back among the other tools in his leather case. "I’ll not risk the wrath of whatever god spared her life by taking it from her now." He nodded to her. "As you can clearly see, her wounds have damaged no vital organs."
"You would rather condemn her to die slowly of infection?"
Alexander stiffened. "I would not have her die at all." His mind was in a fever. He kept seeing her as she walked across the sand, singing, her arms spreading as though to embrace the very sky. "We must get her out of here."
"Are you mad?" Troas hissed, glancing back to see if the guard had heard him.
"I don’t have what I need to treat her wounds or set her arm," Alexander muttered. He snapped his fingers, issuing hushed orders.
Forgetting himself, Troas grasped Alexander’s arm. "You cannot do this!" he said in a firm, barely restrained voice. He nodded pointedly toward the guard. "You risk death for us all if you attempt to rescue a condemned prisoner."
"Then we’d better all pray to her god that he will protect us and help us. Now stop arguing with me and remove her from here immediately. Since you appear afraid of the guard, I’ll handle him and follow as soon as I’m able."
The Egyptian stared at him, his dark eyes unbelieving.
Troas saw there was no arguing with him and gestured quickly to the others. He whispered commands in a low voice as Alexander rolled the leather carrier. The guard was watching them curiously. Taking up the towel, Alexander wiped the blood from his hands and walked calmly toward him.
"You can’t take her out of here," the guard said darkly.
"She’s dead," Alexander lied. "They’re disposing of the body." He leaned against the iron-grated gate and looked out at the hot sand. "She wasn’t worth six sesterces. She was too far gone."
The guard smiled coldly. "You picked her."
Alexander gave a cold laugh and pretended interest in a pair of gladiators. "How long will this match last?"
The guard assessed the opponents. "Thirty minutes, maybe more. But there will be no survivor this time."
Alexander frowned with feigned impatience and tossed the bloodstained towel aside. "In that case, I’m going to buy myself some wine."
As he walked past the table, he picked up his leather case. He strode along the torchlit corridors, curbing the desire to hurry. His heart beat more quickly with each step. As he came out into the sunlight, a gentle breeze brushed his face.
"Hurry! Hurry!" Startled, he glanced behind. He had heard the words clearly, as though someone whispered urgently in his ear. But no one was there.
His heart pounding, Alexander turned toward his home and began to run, urged on by a still, small voice in the wind.
ONE YEAR LATER
Marcus Lucianus Valerian walked through a maze of streets in the Eternal City, hoping to find a sanctuary of peace within himself. He couldn’t. Rome was depressing. He had forgotten the stench of the polluted Tiber and the oppressive, mingled humanity. Or maybe he had never before noticed, too involved in his own life and activities to care. Over the past few weeks since returning to the city of his birth, he had spent hours wandering the streets, visiting places he had always enjoyed before. Now the laughter of friends was hollow, the frenetic feasting and drinking exhausting rather than satisfying.
Downcast and needing distraction, he agreed to attend the games with Antigonus. His friend was now a powerful senator and held a place of honor on the podium. Marcus tried to still his emotions as he entered the stands and found his seat. But he could not deny he felt uncomfortable when the trumpets began blaring. His chest tightened and his stomach became a hard knot as the procession began.
He hadn’t been to the games since Ephesus. He wondered if he could stomach watching them now. It was painfully clear that Antigonus was more obsessed with them than he had been when Marcus left Rome, and he was betting heavily on a gladiator from Gaul.
Several women joined them beneath the canopy. Beautiful and voluptuous, they made it apparent within moments of their arrival that they were as interested in Marcus as in the games. Something stirred in Marcus as he looked at them, but disappeared as quickly as it came. These women were shallow, tainted water to Hadassah’s pure, heady wine. He found no amusement in their idle, vain conversation. Even Antigonus, who had always amused him, began to shred his nerves with his collection of ribald jokes. Marcus wondered how he had ever thought such obscene stories amusing or felt any pity for Antigonus’ litany of financial woes.
"Tell another one," one of the women laughed, obviously enjoying the crude joke Antigonus had just related to them.
"Your ears will burn," Antigonus warned, eyes dancing.
"Another!" everyone agreed.
Everyone but Marcus. He sat silent, filled with disgust. They dress up like vain peacocks and laugh like raucous crows, he thought as he watched them all.
One of the woman moved to recline beside him. She pressed her hip against him enticingly. "The games always stir me," she said with purring softness, her eyes dark.
Repulsed, Marcus ignored her. She began to talk of one of her many lovers, watching Marcus’ face for signs of interest. She only sickened him further. He looked at her, making no effort to hide his feelings, but she was oblivious. She simply continued her intended seduction with all the subtlety of a tigress pretending to be a housecat.
All the while, the bloody games went on unabated. Antigonus and the women laughed, mocked, and shouted curses down on the victims in the arena. Marcus’ nerves stretched tight as he watched his companions . . . as he realized they relished the suffering and death going on before them.
Sickened by what he was seeing, he turned to drink for escape. He drained cup after cup of wine, desperate to drown out the screams of those in the arena. And yet, no amount of the numbing liquid could hold off the image that kept coming to his mind . . . the image of another place, another victim. He had hoped the wine would deaden him. Instead, it made him more acutely aware.
Around him, the masses of people grew frenzied with excitement. Antigonus caught hold of one of the women, and they became entangled. Unbidden, a vision came to Marcus . . . a vision of his sister, Julia. He remembered how he had brought her to the games her first time and laughed at the burning excitement in her dark eyes.
"I won’t shame you, Marcus. I swear. I won’t faint at the sight of blood." And she hadn’t.
Unable to stand more, Marcus rose.
Shoving his way through the ecstatic crowd, he made his way up the steps. As soon as he was able, he ran—as he had in Ephesus. He wanted to get away from the noise, away from the smell of human blood. Pausing to get his breath, he leaned his shoulder against a stone wall and vomited.
Hours after the games were over, he could still hear the sound of the hungry mob screaming for more victims. The sound echoed in his mind, tormenting him.
But then, that was all he had known since Hadassah’s death. Torment. And a terrible, black emptiness.
"Have you been avoiding us?" Antigonus said a few days later when he came to pay Marcus a visit. "You didn’t come to Crassus’ feast last night. Everyone was looking forward to seeing you."
"I had work to do." Marcus had thought to return to Rome permanently, hoping against hope that he would find the peace he so desperately longed for. He knew now his hopes had been in vain. He looked at Antigonus and shook his head. "I’m only in Rome for a few more months."
"I thought you had returned to stay," Antigonus said, clearly surprised by his statement.
"I’ve changed my mind," Marcus replied shortly.
"For reasons I’d rather not discuss."
Antigonus’ eyes darkened, and his voice dripped with sarcasm when he spoke. "Well, I hope you’ll find time to attend the feast I’ve planned in your honor. And why do you look so annoyed? By the gods, Marcus, you’ve changed since going to Ephesus. What happened to you there?"
"I’ve work to do, Antigonus."
"You need distraction from these dark moods of yours." He became so cajoling, Marcus knew he would soon be asking for money. "I’ve arranged entertainment guaranteed to drive away whatever black thoughts plague your mind."
"All right, all right! I’ll come to your bloody feast," Marcus said, impatient for Antigonus’ departure. Why couldn’t anyone understand that he just wanted to be left alone? "But I’ve no time for idle conversation today."
"Graciously said," Antigonus said mockingly, then rose to leave. He swept his robes around himself and made for the door, then paused and looked back at his friend in annoyance. "I certainly hope you’re in a better humor tomorrow night."
Antigonus had neglected to tell him that Arria would be in attendance. Within moments of arriving, Marcus saw her. He gave Antigonus an annoyed look, but the senator merely smiled smugly and leaned toward him with a sly expression. "She was your lover for almost two years, Marcus." He laughed low. "That’s far longer than anyone has lasted since." At the expression on Marcus’ face, he raised a questioning brow. "You look displeased. You did tell me you parted with her amicably."
Arria was still beautiful, still intent on gaining the adoration of every male in the room, still amoral and eager for any new excitement. However, Marcus saw subtle changes. The soft loveliness of youth had given way to a harder-edged worldliness. Her laughter held no exuberance or pleasure—rather, it carried a quality of brashness and crudity that grated. Several men hovered around her, and she alternately teased each, making jokes at their expense and offering whispered suggestive observations. She glanced across the room then, looking at Marcus in question. He knew she was wondering why he hadn’t been caught by the smile she had cast him when he came in. But he knew that smile for what it was: bait for a hungry fish.
Unfortunately for Arria, Marcus was not hungry. Not any longer.
Antigonus leaned closer. "See how she looks at you, Marcus. You could have her back with a snap of your fingers. The man who’s watching her like a pet dog is her current conquest, Metrodorus Crateuas Merula. What he lacks in wit, he more than makes up for in money. He’s almost as rich as you are, but then our little Arria has money of her own these days. Her book created quite a furor."
"Book?" Marcus said and gave a sardonic laugh. "I didn’t know Arria could write her name, let alone string enough words together to make a sentence."
"Obviously, you know nothing of what she’s written or you wouldn’t be making light of it. It’s hardly a laughing matter. Our little Arria had secret talents unbeknownst to us. She’s become a woman of letters, or more precisely, erotica. A do-all, tell-all collection of stories. By the gods, it’s stirred up trouble in high places. One senator lost his wife over it. Not that he minded the loss of the woman, but her family connections cost him dearly. Rumor has it he may be forced into suicide. Arria has never been what you would call discreet. Now, I think she’s addicted to scandal. She has scribes working night and day making copies of her little tome. The price for one copy is exorbitant."
"Which you undoubtedly paid," Marcus said dryly.
"But of course," Antigonus said with a laugh. "I wanted to see if she would mention me. She did. In chapter eleven. To my dismay, it was a rather cursory mention." He glanced at Marcus with an amused smile. "She wrote about you in detail—and at length. No wonder Sarapais was so enamored of you at the games the other day. She wanted to see if you were all Arria said you were." He grinned. "You should buy a copy for yourself and read it, Marcus. It might bring back a few sweet memories."
"For all her exquisite beauty, Arria is crass and best forgotten."
"A rather cruel assessment of a woman you once loved, isn’t it?" Antigonus said, measuring him.
"I never loved Arria." Marcus turned his attention to the dancing girls undulating before him. The bells on their ankles and wrists jingled, grating on his nerves. Rather than be aroused by the boldness of their sensual dance and transparently veiled bodies, he felt discomfited. He wished their performance would end and they would depart.
Antigonus reached out to grasp one of the women and pulled her down onto his lap. Despite her struggling, he kissed her passionately. When he drew back, he laughed and said to Marcus, "Pick one for yourself."
The slave girl cried out, and the sound sent Marcus’ insides instinctively recoiling. He had seen the look on the girl’s face before—in Hadassah’s eyes when he had let his own passions burn out of control.
"Let her go, Antigonus."
Others were watching Antigonus, laughing and calling out encouragement. Drunk and provoked, Antigonus became rougher in his determination to have his way. The girl screamed.
Marcus found himself on his feet. "Let her go!"
The room fell silent, all eyes staring at Marcus in astonishment. Laughing, Antigonus raised his head and looked at him in mild surprise. His laughter died. Alarmed, he rolled to one side, releasing the girl.
Weeping hysterically, she stumbled to her feet and scrambled away.
Antigonus regarded Marcus quizzically. "My apologies, Marcus. If you wanted her that badly, why didn’t you say so earlier?"
Marcus felt Arria’s eyes fixed on him like hot coals, burning with jealousy. He wondered fleetingly what punishment the slave girl would receive at Arria’s hands for something that had nothing to do with her. "I didn’t want the girl," he said tersely. "Nor any other in this room."
Whispers rippled. Several women glanced at Arria and smirked.
Antigonus’ countenance darkened. "Then why intrude upon my pleasure?"
"You were about to rape the girl."
Antigonus laughed dryly. "Rape? Given another moment, she would have enjoyed it."
"I doubt that."
Antigonus’ humor evaporated, his eyes flashing at the insult. "Since when did a slave’s feelings matter to you? I’ve seen you take your pleasure in like ways a time or two."
"I don’t need to be reminded," Marcus said grimly, downing the remainder of the wine in his cup. "What I do need is a breath of fresh air."
He went out into the gardens, but found no relief there, for Arria followed him, Merula at her side. Gritting his teeth, Marcus bore their presence. She talked about their love affair as though it had ended yesterday and not four years before. Merula glared at Marcus, who felt pity for the man. Arria had always enjoyed tormenting her lovers.
"Have you read my book, Marcus?" she said, her voice dripping honey.
"It’s quite good. You’d enjoy it."
"I’ve lost my taste for trash," he said, his gaze flickering over her.
Her eyes flashed. "I lied about you, Marcus," she said, her face contorted with rage. "You were the worst lover I ever had!"
Marcus grinned back at her coldly. "That’s because I’m the only one who walked away from you with blood still in his veins." Turning his back on her, he strolled away.
Ignoring the names she called him, he left the garden. Returning to the banquet, he looked for distraction in conversations with old acquaintances and friends. But their laughter grated; their amusement was always at someone else’s expense. He heard the pettiness behind the amusing remarks, the relish as new tragedies were recounted.
Leaving the group, he reclined on a couch, drank morosely, and watched people. He noticed the games they played with one another. They put on masks of civility, all the while spewing their venom. And then it hit him. Gatherings and feasts such as this had once been a large part of his life. He had relished them.
Now, he wondered why he was here . . . why he had ever returned to Rome at all.
Antigonus approached him, his arm thrown carelessly around a richly clad, pale-skinned girl. Her smile was sensual. She had the curves of Aphrodite, and for an instant his flesh responded to the dark intensity of her eyes. It had been a long time since he had been with a woman.
Antigonus noted Marcus’ appraisal and smiled, pleased with himself. "You like her. I knew you would. She’s quite luscious." Removing his arm from around the woman, he gave her a gentle nudge, though she needed none. She fell lightly against Marcus’ chest and gazed up at him with parted lips. Antigonus smiled, obviously pleased with himself. "Her name is Didyma."
Marcus took hold of Didyma’s shoulders and set her back from him, smiling wryly at Antigonus. The woman looked from him to her master in question, and Antigonus shrugged. "It would appear he doesn’t want you, Diddy." He waved his hand carelessly in dismissal.
Marcus set his goblet down firmly. "I appreciate the gesture, Antigonus—"
"But . . . ," he said ruefully and shook his head. "You perplex me, Marcus. No interest in women. No interest in the games. What happened to you in Ephesus?"
"Nothing you would understand."
Marcus gave him a sardonic smile. "I would not entrust my private life to so public a man."
Antigonus’ eyes narrowed. "There’s a bite in your every word these days," he said softly. "How have I offended you that you take on such a condemning air?"
Marcus shook his head. "It’s not you, Antigonus. It’s all of it."
"All of what?" Antigonus said, baffled.
"Life. Damnable life!" The sensual pleasures Marcus had once savored were now dust in his mouth. When Hadassah had died, something within him had died with her. How could he explain the wrenching, profound changes within himself to a man like Antigonus, a man still consumed and obsessed with fleshly passions?
How could he explain that everything had lost meaning to him when a common slave girl had died in an Ephesian arena?
"My apologies," he said flatly, rising to leave. "I’m poor company these days."
He received other invitations over the next month but declined them, choosing to immerse himself in his business enterprises instead. But no peace was to be found there, either. No matter how frenetically he worked, he was still tormented. Finally, he knew he had to be clear of the past, of Rome, of everything.
He sold the rock quarry and the remaining building contracts—both at sizable profit, though he felt no pride of satisfaction in his gain. He met with managers of the Valerian warehouses on the Tiber and reviewed the accounts. Sextus, a longtime associate of his father’s, had proven himself loyal to Valerian interests over many years. Marcus offered him the position of overseer to the Valerian holdings in Rome, with a generous percentage of the gross profits.
Sextus was stunned. "You’ve never been so openhanded, my lord." There was subtle challenge and unspoken distrust in his words.
"You may distribute the monies as you see fit, without answering to me."
"I wasn’t speaking of money," Sextus said bluntly. "I speak of control. Unless I misunderstand, you’re handing me the reins of your business holdings in Rome."
"Have you forgotten I was once your father’s slave?"
Sextus assessed him through narrowed eyes. He had known Decimus well and had been long aware that Marcus had brought his father little but grief. The young man’s ambition had been like a fever in his blood, burning away conscience. What game was he playing now? "Was it not your goal to control your father’s holdings as well as your own?"
Marcus’ mouth curved into a cold smile. "You speak frankly."
"Would you not have it so, my lord? Then by all means tell me so that I might flatter you."
Marcus’ mouth tightened, but he held his temper. He forced himself to remember this man had been a loyal friend to his father. "My father and I made our peace in Ephesus."
Sextus’ silence revealed his disbelief.
Marcus looked straight into the older man’s eyes and held his gaze. "The blood of my father runs in my veins, Sextus," he said coolly. "I haven’t made this offer lightly, nor do I have ulterior motives that threaten you. I’ve given it a great deal of thought over the last few weeks. You’ve handled the cargoes that have been brought into these warehouses for seventeen years. You know by name the men who unload the ships and store the goods. You know which merchants can be trusted and which cannot. And you’ve always given a solid accounting for every transaction. Who better for me to trust?" He held out the parchment. Sextus made no move to take it.
"Accept or decline, as you see fit," Marcus said, "but know this: I’ve sold my other holdings in Rome. The only reason I haven’t sold the ships and warehouses is because they were so much a part of my father’s life. It was his sweat and blood that built this enterprise. Not mine. I offer this position to you because you are capable—but more important, you were my father’s friend. If you refuse my offer, I will sell. Have no doubts about that, Sextus."
Sextus gave a harsh laugh. "Even if you were serious about selling, you couldn’t. Rome is struggling to survive. Right now, no one I know of has the money to buy an enterprise of this size and magnitude."
"I’m well aware of that." Marcus’ eyes were cold. "I’m not against disposing of my fleet ship by ship, and the dock holdings building by building."
Sextus saw he meant it and was stunned by such opportunistic thinking. How could this young man be the son of Decimus? "You have over five hundred people working for you! Freemen, most of them. Do you care nothing about them and the welfare of their families?"
"You know them better than I."
"If you sell now, you’ll make a fraction of what all this is worth," he said, alluding to Marcus’ well-known love of money. "I doubt you would carry this through."
"Try me." Marcus tossed the parchment onto the table between them.
Sextus studied him for a long moment, alarmed by the hardness in the younger man’s face, the determined set of his jaw. He wasn’t bluffing. "Why?"
"Because I’ll not have this millstone around my neck holding me in Rome."
"And you would go so far? If what you said is true and you made your peace with your father, why would you tear apart what took him a lifetime to build?"
"It’s not what I want to do," Marcus answered simply, "but I will tell you this, Sextus. In the end, Father saw it all as vanity, and now I agree with him." He gestured toward the parchment. "What is your answer?"
"I’ll need time to consider."
"You have the time it’ll take me to walk out that door."
Sextus stiffened at such arrogance. Then he relaxed. His mouth curved faintly. He let out his breath and shook his head on a soft laugh. "You are very much like your father, Marcus. Even after he gave me my freedom, he always knew how to get his own way."
"Not in everything," Marcus said cryptically.
Sextus sensed Marcus’ pain. Perhaps he had made his peace with his father after all and now regretted the wasted years of rebellion. He took up the parchment and tapped it against his palm. Remembering the father, Sextus studied the son. "I accept," he said, "on one condition."
"I’ll deal with you the same way I dealt with your father." He tossed the parchment onto the burning coals in the brazier and extended his hand.
Throat closing, Marcus grasped it.
The next morning, at sunrise, Marcus sailed for Ephesus.
Over the long weeks of the voyage, he spent hours standing on the bow of the ship, the salt wind in his face. There, at last, he allowed his thoughts to turn again to Hadassah. He remembered standing with her on a bow like this one, watching the soft tendrils of her dark hair blowing about her face, her expression earnest as she spoke of her unseen god: "God speaks . . . a still, small voice in the wind."
Just as her voice seemed to speak to him now, still and small, whispering to him in the wind . . . beckoning him.
But to what? Despair? Death?
He was torn between wanting to forget her and fear that he would. And now it was as though, having opened his mind to her, he couldn’t close it again.
Her voice had become an insistent presence, echoing throughout the darkness in which he now lived.