“Gorgeously wrought.”— C. W. Gortner, author of The Queen’s Vow
“Deeply passionate.”—Kate Furnivall, author of Shadows on the Nile
“[An] epic, sexy romp.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.
For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.
Elegant, secretive Sabina may be Empress of Rome, but she still stands poised on a knife’s edge. She must keep the peace between two deadly enemies: her husband Hadrian, Rome’s brilliant and sinister Emperor; and battered warrior Vix, who is her first love. But Sabina is guardian of a deadly secret: Vix’s beautiful son Antinous has become the Emperor’s latest obsession.
Empress and Emperor, father and son will spin in a deadly dance of passion, betrayal, conspiracy, and war. As tragedy sends Hadrian spiraling into madness, Vix and Sabina form a last desperate pact to save the Empire. But ultimately, the fate of Rome lies with an untried girl, a spirited redhead who may just be the next Lady of the Eternal City . . .
The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.
Women. Hell’s gates, but they ruin everything!
I’m called Vercingetorix the Red, and not for my reddish hair. I’ve traveled the length and breadth of the Empire, and I’ve traveled much of it gloved in blood: the men I killed as a desperate boy fighting for his life in the Colosseum, and the men I killed as a steel-clad legionary standing shield-to-shield against the Empire’s enemies. My story should be all blood and battle, swords clashing and shields creaking, full of warrior splendor like I’d dreamed as a foolish youth.
So how in the name of all the gods did my gore-and-glory tale get so thoroughly taken over by women?
Perhaps all men’s stories are overtaken by women. I’m a man of Rome, with all that entails—a citizen, a soldier, a paterfamilias—and all men of Rome think they stride the earth and make it tremble. We make the laws and then punish the lawless; we make the borders and then punish the border-breakers; we record our own glory and then demand our names be remembered—all over the Empire we stride and we bellow, we make and we break. But if men are the makers and breakers of empires, then women are the makers and breakers of men.
This tale of mine isn’t the story of Vercingetorix the Red anymore, or even of the Emperor who hated me. That sounds like a good story, I know, but it’s not this story. This story belongs to the women—the women in blue, as I like to think of them. So many: the blue-veiled girl who broke my heart and married my enemy, the blue-scarfed girl whose heart I broke and who became my enemy, the blue-jeweled girl who married my dearest friend and harbored more than enough reasons to fear me . . .
And the girl who stood before me now in the blue tunic, wide-eyed and bloody-kneed and so young, whom I was sending to her death. Her, most of all.
“Annia,” I roared, and her eyes flickered over the blood on my hands, the body lying limp at my feet. “Annia, run!”
And Annia runs. So fast, just a streak of blue fading away from me, and I wonder, Can she outrun death? Because if she can’t, an empire falls. You’d think the fate of the Eternal City would depend on someone like me, a warrior with bloody hands and a bloody sword. But it will rise or fall on a woman—and maybe it always does.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m Vercingetorix: “Vix” to my friends, “the Red” to my men, and “that pleb bastard” to my enemies. I’ve been a slave and a guard, a gladiator and a legionary, a centurion and a legion commander. I’ve served (in various ways) three emperors, and I’ve loved (in even more various ways) three blue-eyed women. I’m Vercingetorix the Red, and this is their story.
A.D. 118, Summer
As I came striding out of the Imperial palace at dawn, I had three causes to be furious and one to be sick and scared. I hated admitting I was scared, so I focused on the rage instead, and all the reasons for it. For one thing, I was wearing the full, ridiculous parade armor of my rank as tribune in the Praetorian Guard, from the absurd plumed helmet to the ridiculous muscled cuirass, and I hated that armor with every drop of blood in me. Give me a plain legionary breastplate any day. For a second reason, the day was already sweltering hot although the sun had barely risen over the rooftops, and sweat collected where the battered lion skin lapped my neck—the lion skin I’d won when I was promoted for courageous action in Dacia a long time ago, a lion skin I wasn’t supposed to wear as a Praetorian, but wore anyway because it meant I was more than a pretty palace guard.
The third reason I was furious? Because on this summer day, I’d have to watch my greatest enemy march through the Eternal City’s gates for the first time as Emperor of Rome.
As for why I felt cold and scared, well, I refused to think about that.
I came out into the full glare of sunlight and stopped. My guardsmen were lined up in immaculate red-and-gold rows—Praetorians were good at looking immaculate—and below was the bustle of the Imperial court, chamberlains trying to organize us all for the Emperor’s arrival. One of them leeched onto my elbow droning, but I didn’t hear a word because I was looking down the marble steps at a woman in Imperial purple who stared past me as though I were not there. I immediately added her to the list of reasons why this was a black, black day. Empress Vibia Sabina had spent the last year ignoring me, and I didn’t like being ignored.
“Lady,” I greeted her.
“Tribune,” she returned coolly.
I felt my jaw jut. People assumed the Empress and I didn’t like each other, and that was a reasonable assumption. I didn’t get along at all with the old Empress, a rancid Imperial bitch who couldn’t lay eyes on me without sniffing like she smelled a drain. But Empress Sabina was a different matter. I’d known her since she was a senator’s barefoot daughter and I’d been a lanky young guard in her father’s pay. We’d been friends, we’d been enemies, we’d been too many things to count. Now we were an empress and a guard, and if it was my job to keep her alive, I’d be damned if I’d be looked through like I was a window.
Sabina extended a hand to the chamberlain for assistance into her curtained litter. Maybe it was petty, but I brushed the man aside and offered my hand instead, not letting her dismiss me like a slave. Her fingers were narrow and smooth in my big rough paw, and her blue eyes flicked over me once as she settled among the cushions. A supple, sinuous woman maybe a year younger than my thirty-five: a little three-cornered face like a shield, a draped stola of Imperial purple, and wide beaten-silver cuffs adorning her wrists and ankles. She looked regal and shackled, and I saw she had her statue face on. When she wore that face you’d never in a thousand years know what she was thinking. Empress Sabina had Imperial purple in her veins as well as on her back: oceans of patrician-cool self-possession all the way down to the deep and hidden center of her.
But maybe it was a good thing. Of the two of us, Sabina would at least have the self-control to look the Emperor of Rome in the eye and lie like a Greek. I wasn’t sure I had the self-control to keep myself from hitting the bastard the moment I saw his smug, bearded face.
We were to greet him at the gates of the city, and the moment was almost here. The air hung like a warm wet cloak as the Imperial procession creaked off into the twisting streets. Rome: that old whore of a city with her overflowing gutters and feral dogs; the plump, brisk housewives with baskets over their arms and vendors crying wares on corners. My city. I hadn’t been born here; I hadn’t even loved my time here—I’d started out as a slave and a gladiator, and Rome would’ve been happy to chew me up and spit out my bones on the sand of the arena. But I’d gotten out at the expense of some blood and a few deaths, and then this fickle bitch of a city kissed me instead, sent me vaulting up the ladder in the legions under Emperor Trajan. Trajan came before Hadrian, and Trajan I had loved—but there was no Trajan anymore. Just Rome, and she owned me. Everyone in the city from the idle drunks to the idle rich was pressing along the streets for a look at their new Emperor.
Well, not quite new. Hadrian had put on the purple a full year ago, but he’d learned his lesson from Emperors who celebrated their glory before solidifying it—no one ever said the bastard was stupid. He spent his first year making the rounds of the eastern legions, promising, cajoling, bribing. It wasn’t till he was sure of his position that he returned to Rome itself, and he’d sent me instructions for his triumphal entry:
Pomp, Hadrian had written in his terse script. Sacrifices. Gladiatorial games. Rose petals. Cheering crowds. Oh, and let’s take care of the executions on that list I gave you.
That’s why people weren’t inclined to cheer. From the back of my ill-tempered gelding I had a fine view over the procession of senators in their snowy rows, and they were a grim, unsmiling lot. A frightened lot, too. They knew the names on that list; Hadrian had had those names rammed down the Senate’s collective throat in open session. Men of note; men who should have been safe; senators and former consuls and war heroes who considered themselves untouchable. But no one was safe when Hadrian looked at you—and he made sure we all knew it.
The chamberlains fussed again at the city gates, babbling protocols, but I just swung off my horse and ignored them. So did Empress Sabina; she sat reading a scroll and ignoring the Imperial steward flapping at her. “Lady, the Empress must be first to greet her husband upon his return to hearth and home; if you will array yourself here—”
“I will be first,” a woman’s deep, loud voice intoned. It was that rancid old bitch Plotina, widow to the previous Emperor. “If anyone is to welcome Dear Publius home to the Eternal City, it will be his mother.”
Empress Sabina spoke, still reading. “His mother is dead, Plotina.”
The old empress in her dark purple silks gave a patronizing smile. “Mother in all but name, Vibia Sabina.”
God, but she was insufferable. How a man like the late Emperor Trajan—straightforward, vigorous, with a love of common soldiers and dirty jokes—had ended up with that straitlaced cow of a wife, I had no idea. Politics, I suppose. I was a gutter-born bastard free to marry the girl I loved, and I had, but those of the senatorial class married for power. I’m not sure if any power would’ve been worth wedding Plotina, with her graying wings of hair and the way she mouthed her words like pronouncements carried down from the gods. She was mouthing more pronouncements at Sabina—the unsatisfactory daughter-in-law who’d taken her place as Empress of Rome.
“You may be Empress, my girl.” Plotina lowered her voice, but guards like me always have an excuse to hover. “But only because I made Dear Publius Emperor. Remember that. He certainly will.”
“Of course, because we all know he’s just aching to see you again.” Sabina tossed her scroll aside, swinging out of the curtained litter. “How many letters did my husband write you while he was away, for all those long screeds of advice you sent him every other day?”
A sniff from the old Empress, and then we all took our places. I held my post at Sabina’s elbow, watching a drop of sweat ease down the long ribbon of her neck from under her plaited wig. She’d never been a woman to fuss with her hair; she’d shorn it clean off at some point so it covered her head in a silky cap of light brown. But she was Empress now, so someone had jammed a wig over that shocking shorn head. Probably Empress Plotina, who waited with her whole body quivering like a horse at the starting line of the Circus Maximus. Her eyes gleamed fever-bright as she remarked to the air, “Dear Publius keeps us waiting, but that is a god’s prerogative. He is a god incarnate, you know.”
“Have you been inhaling too much of that Imperial purple dye?” Sabina asked conversationally. “Sometimes I wonder.”
I almost laughed, but then the cry went up.
I looked beyond the gates to see dust, billowing like a storm cloud on the road approaching the city. A great roar went up from the waiting crowd, and Sabina spoke softly. “Are they so eager to see him?”
“They want the largesse they’ll get if they cheer, Lady.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I made a formal announcement that they’d get largesse if they cheered.”
Sabina smiled, her Imperial mask cracking briefly to show the girl who had cantered around the Empire in search of adventure. It was hard not to smile at that girl, even if you sometimes wanted to put a leash on her.
She studied me a moment, and her serious expression returned. “What’s wrong, Vix? You’re smiling, but you’ve been coiled tight as a rope all morning. Are you dreading something? Besides that,” she added with a glance at the approaching storm of dust that was her husband.
I’m dreading a death, I almost said. Five executions were coming, but one would be worse than all the others combined. I’d dreaded it during this whole past year like a leaden weight in my stomach. And it was coming, once this rose-petaled pomp was done. The Emperor had ordered those deaths, and just because he’d changed his mind after the arrests were made—“Leave them alive in their cells till I return,” he’d written me, “I will see the executions myself”—didn’t mean blood wasn’t still going to be spilled.
Empress Sabina knew whose death I dreaded. She dreaded it, too. I saw her hesitate as though hunting for words, but then the trumpets blared, and she remembered to ignore me. I had a moment to resent that, even over the sick swoop in my stomach, but she was right to do it. We were safer that way, both of us. We turned away from each other at the same instant—immaculate Empress, stone-visaged guard; nothing but cool, impersonal space between us—to face the Emperor.
Publius Aelius Hadrian.
He cut a splendid image, I won’t deny that. Broad-shouldered, tall, sitting his big stallion like a centaur, red leather reins doubled through his tanned fist. Bearded like a Greek, in disdain for all the long tradition this city had for shorn chins. He’d worn military dress: a cloak of rich purple draped with careless flair across the horse’s flanks, a breastplate polished to a meticulous gleam that brought a chuff of approval out of me despite myself. Hadrian’s head was bare, the morning breeze stirring his curls, and though that massive handsome head was bowed with a humility designed to please the crowd, I saw the excitement that danced in his deep-set eyes. I felt my pulse give an answering leap of loathing.
It was afternoon before the interminable sacrifices and blessings were complete. My stomach growled and my eyes stung from temple smoke by the time Hadrian swept like a conqueror into the Domus Flavia, sandals slapping against the intricate mosaics. The roaring of the crowds retreated to distant thunder beyond the marble colonnades as Hadrian unfastened his cloak from his breastplate. A slave came forward, but Hadrian looked about him instead and tossed the cloak at me. It fell to the floor at my feet.
Our eyes met for the first time in a year, the first time since Emperor Trajan had died and Hadrian had taken his place. The Emperor and I locked eyes, and I swear I saw a flare of hatred in Hadrian’s gaze to match the jump in my heart. I’d felt that same flare the day we first met. Back then I was just a freed slave with a swagger and a chest full of scars; he was a drawling bore with a snow-white toga and a string of senatorial titles. The gulf between two men like that should be wider than the whole Empire, but we put each other’s hackles up the moment we met. We’d circled each other, measured each other through narrowed eyes, and I suppose I could be portentous and say that I knew at once how much he would come to blight my life. But I’m about as prescient as a paving stone, and I’d had no idea at the time. I just knew that I hated him on sight, and he felt the same for me. It’s just like falling in love, that kind of hatred. It feels the same, that sick swoop in your stomach, but it’s all poisoned and upside down.
He pointed to the purple cloak at my feet. “Pick that up.”
I didn’t move. He’d schemed his way into Imperial purple, and then—for some perverse reason I had yet to understand—he’d made me his watchdog. I’d laughed in his face, but how do you say no to an emperor when he can squash you like a fly? Not just you, but the two daughters you dote on, the adopted son you probably shouldn’t admit is your favorite, and the stalwart, beloved wife who raised all three? I had a whole set of hostages for my good behavior, and the Emperor knew it.
“Caesar,” I said, and stooped to pick up the damned cloak.
“Excellent,” he said pleasantly. “Now, why don’t you go fetch our friends? You know the ones I mean. I’ve a little time to spare before I prepare for the meeting with the Arvals.”
The Domus Flavia was a lovely place: marble colonnades catching every breeze, wet green gardens with splashing fountains, cool mosaic tiles set in rippling patterns underfoot. But it was a palace—it had housed great men like Emperor Trajan, but it had housed monsters and madmen too. And monsters and madmen require uglier things in their palaces. Things like dungeon cells.
I let my centurions fetch the other prisoners, but I went for Titus myself—I owed him that, at least. I’d put my old friend in the best cell I could find and softened it up with a yielding bed, good meals, water for washing, even a store of books. But a cell is a cell, and when my friend lifted his head and looked at me, the changes I saw from his months of dwelling in this place shook me. He’d been a lanky, cheerful young patrician with a string of distinguished names and a lineage that went back to Aeneas. Now I saw the shadows under his eyes, the flesh that had fallen away from his body, the gray salting his hair.
How could Titus have gray in his hair already? He was even younger than I.
“Hello, Slight,” he said, and I couldn’t help wincing at his old name for me. Vercingetorix was too foreign a name for Roman tongues; it had long been shortened to the casual Gallic “Vix”—which just happened to double in Latin as a common adjective, something along the lines of “barely” or “slightly.” I’d have belted anyone else who dared call me slightly anything, but Titus was allowed. I’d saved his life in Dacia long ago, a brash young legionary rescuing a nervous young tribune, and ever since that day, Titus Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus was my friend.
Was. I already had a family hostage to my good behavior—I couldn’t afford friends, too. Not anymore.
“Get up,” I said curtly. “He wants to see you.”
“Yours, I think.” Titus unfolded himself, all long limbs and bony shins. “He made me his prisoner, but you’re his dog.”
There was cool judgment in his tone, and I bristled. I’d rather have heard hatred. I didn’t mind being hated, but I was damned if I’d be judged.
“I’m not his dog,” I bit out. “I’m his killer, the one he lets off the leash when he wants blood spilled. Keep it straight.”
Titus’s words came quietly. “You were never a killer, Vix. A soldier, yes. But not a murderer of innocents.”
“Well, that’s what I am now.” Putting my hand on the hilt of my gladius. “So move.”
“‘A sword is never a killer,’” he quoted. “‘It’s a tool in the killer’s hands.’”
He smiled. “Seneca.”
Titus and his damned quotes; he had one for every occasion. “So according to Seneca, am I the killer or the sword?”
My friend met my eyes. The night I’d come to arrest him, he’d been all fury at my betrayal, but now his gaze was sad. “Maybe you’re the tool.”
That stung. Truth usually does. And it just made me angrier. Truth usually does that, too.
Maybe Titus saw my jaw clench, because he put a hand to my shoulder. “I’ve been wanting to thank you for something, Slight.”
“What?” I gestured. “Putting you in here? You didn’t thank me when I arrested you!”
“You’ve done your best for me since then.” A shrug. “No, I meant to thank you for not letting my wife in to see me, after she told me she was expecting a child. I worried she’d miscarry, as much as it upset her to see me here.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said, and gestured him out the door. “I didn’t do it for you.” I did it for me, because every time my friend’s wife looked at me, her eyes were stony with condemnation. I couldn’t blame her, but I hated facing her. I’d been the one to drag her husband away on what should have been their wedding night, her half-dressed and pleading as I dragged him from their wedding bed, him trying to reassure her even as I marched him across the flower-strewn mosaics. “Hope she doesn’t weep all over the atrium today,” I said brusquely. “The Emperor hates crying women.”
“Faustina doesn’t weep.” There was pride in Titus’s voice. “Too brave! Far braver than me. I’m sure our daughter will take after her—”
I put an arm out and checked him as he passed me. “Stop.”
“Stop being friendly,” I said brutally. “We’re not friends. Not now. I’ll get the order to kill you in a few moments—”
“And will you carry it out?”
“I’ll have to, won’t I?” I stepped closer until we stood chest to chest. “I’ve got a wife too, you know.”
I stared into his eyes, seeing fear, but well-mastered fear. He was almost as tall as I was, something few men could say, but I could have snapped his aristocratic bones in half. He’d never been a fighter, Titus. He was a man of honor, with all it entailed. He wouldn’t kill me, if our positions were reversed.
But I wasn’t a man of honor. I’d survive, and so would my family—even if I had to kill a friend to do it.
“Come with me,” I said, and yanked him away from the cell toward the man who—whether we liked it or not—was master of us all.
When Sabina’s mother-in-law had become Empress some twenty years ago, she had paused picturesquely in the massive doorway of the Domus Flavia upon entering for the first time and announced, “I hope to leave this palace the same woman as I enter it.” Plotina had made sure all Rome knew that story, told with respectful nods for her humility and modesty.
When Sabina entered the Domus Flavia last year as Empress, she hadn’t bothered with humility and modesty. Her first words in the Imperial palace had been to the director of the Imperial archives: “Give me everything you have on the previous Empresses of Rome.”
He had blinked: a thin, bright-eyed man named Suetonius, ink-stained and irreverent, trailing a forgotten tail of parchment from a scroll thrust through his belt. “Which Empresses, Lady?”
“All of them.” Because Rome had had so many Empresses, some of them infamous. Those names were still whispered: the Empresses who had been exiled for adultery or beheaded for plotting. But what about the others? Emperor Domitian’s wife with her spotless reputation, except for those faint uneasy rumors of how she’d engineered her husband’s assassination . . . Empress Livia, who boasted of weaving Augustus’s tunics with her own hands, but was as clever as any man in Rome . . .
The Empresses who survived.
How? Sabina had wanted to know, plunging into the scrolls Suetonius brought her. Teach me quickly, because no one’s going to put a sword through my neck if I can help it.
And Hadrian would certainly put a sword through her neck, if he had even an inkling what she was hiding.
“Vibia Sabina,” he had greeted her at the city gates just an hour ago, raising her from her curtsy with a gesture. His eyes moved over her, and Sabina felt a moment of pure, undiluted panic. He’ll see, she thought. He’ll know.
No, she thought, and smoothed her face to blandness. He won’t. He’ll never know.
“Caesar,” she replied, and saw his eyes flare dark excitement. At hearing the title, not at seeing her—and certainly not in any kind of suspicion. Sabina had breathed easier. One hurdle cleared.
Sabina had not taken her eyes off her husband during the procession through the city. She watched him from her silver litter behind Hadrian’s big horse, consuls and lictors pacing along behind. Most men would have been dazzled, and he was dazzled; she could see that in the giddiness of the smile every time he raised his hand and got a roar in return. But he was working too, Sabina could see that. She could all but hear his thoughts when they paraded past the ruins of the Pantheon, that ancient temple to all the gods of Rome: Burned down forty years ago. Rebuild? Note: Check funds. When his eyes fell on the Ara Pacis, the great frieze Emperor Augustus had erected to celebrate the peace and prosperity his family had brought to Rome: Imperial family as lodestones of divine favor; yes, that always goes over well. Note: Parade family unity. Working, always working, even in his moment of triumph.
But once the parade was over and they entered the Domus Flavia, Sabina saw him smile. And that made her skin prickle, because her husband always smiled at the prospect of blood.
“Ah,” he said idly as a line of shackled men were led in. “The traitors.”
A ripple went through the crowd of watchers at the sight of the five men. Two renowned former consuls; a fierce Berber-bred legion commander with the loyalty of thousands; a popular former governor of Dacia whose wife gave a moan from the crowd as he was led in . . . But Sabina’s eyes flew past the first four pairs of shoulders, whether shrinking inward or held proudly erect, to the fifth man. Titus. Her heart squeezed, and for a moment the secret that weighed so hot and heavy in her breast was forgotten. Poor Titus looked so thin and worn in his shabby tunic, she hardly recognized him—and she’d known him since she was eighteen and he just a year or two younger. He was her brother-in-law and oldest friend; he’d once courted her hand in marriage; he’d stayed a friend when she turned him down. He’d eventually, to her great delight, married her younger half-sister. And now, somehow, he was her husband’s enemy.
Sabina found her fingers cutting into the gilded arms of her chair.
Hadrian was lounging back in his own. “Read the charges,” he said benignly, and bent to scratch the head of the hunting dog at his feet.
Sabina did not listen to the charges as they were read. They were absurd anyway; trumped-up nonsense about a conspiracy against the Emperor’s life. The five men in shackles shared no conspiracy between them. What they shared was the former Emperor’s favor; popularity in Rome and among the Senate as her husband had never been popular. Men who could make trouble for a new Caesar. So perhaps my husband is wise, Sabina could not help thinking. Removing all his potential enemies at once, at a single stroke on the beginning of his reign.
But not Titus. Titus was no one’s enemy. Former Emperor Trajan had thought the world of him, had even considered appointing him heir—but Sabina’s husband inveigled his way onto the throne instead, and so here was Titus in shackles. What would this day be like if Titus and not my husband were the one wearing the purple? Sabina couldn’t help but wonder with a pang of thwarted longing. Certainly my sister would make a far better Empress than me. Beautiful Faustina, so tall and lovely, clutching her baby in her arms, managing a desperate smile for her husband as he stood there in chains. Titus smiled back at his wife, and Sabina’s heart contracted. Dear gods, he cannot die today. He cannot!
“Well,” Hadrian drawled at last, looking from sweating face to sweating face as the charges were concluded. “I understand the Senate has ratified the arrests. And has recommended execution?”
A general mutter of assent. That decree had been forced through the Senate House, and from the furious glances flying about the room, humiliation still lingered on every senatorial mind. It had been the scandal that rocked all Rome, this whole past month.
“Executions?” Hadrian snapped, voice suddenly icy. “Did I specify to the Senate that I wished these men dead? Where was that written, Senators?”
The new Emperor’s deep-set gaze roved the atrium, and everyone froze under it. Pages, senators, slaves, guardsmen—not one person moved.
It wasn’t written down because you didn’t write it, Sabina thought. Hadrian never committed himself so absolutely to anything—in case he wanted to change his mind later. But everyone in the Senate House knew what you wanted, and they gave it to you. So, my mercurial husband, what are you doing?
“Precipitate of you, Senators,” Hadrian tutted, “to order executions without my presence.”
“Or perhaps the blame lies with my Praetorians?” Gaze roving to the Praetorian Prefects, who looked puzzled because they would have had very specific orders indeed about the charges he brought before the Senate. “Praetorians can be . . . overeager.”
Sabina’s gaze shot to Vix, standing behind the Prefects in that ridiculous overdecorated tribune’s armor. His face was impassive as granite, but his eyes burned for one furious white-hot moment. Because Vix had had his orders too, and had been very far from eager to carry them out.
“I’m to stop off on my way back to Rome,” Vix had said in bitter horror after Trajan’s death in faraway Selinus. “And kill all your husband’s enemies for him.”
“All his enemies?” Sabina had quipped, just as bitterly. “That’s too long a list for one man. Even you.”
A thick silence had fallen in the atrium, Sabina realized, and she shook her whirling thoughts of Selinus aside. The Emperor had called for wine; he accepted a goblet from a scuttling page boy and swirled the blood-colored liquid inside with a genial expression. His eyes drifted over his prisoners again. The two former consuls were staring at the Emperor with watering eyes; the provincial governor’s mouth opened and closed as though a plea had dried up on his lips; the legionary commander stared back defiantly. Only Titus wasn’t looking at Hadrian at all—his gaze had never wavered from Faustina, drinking in the sight of her and their baby daughter, too. The daughter he had never seen, and who might never know him at all.
Hadrian’s gaze lingered a moment longer, and the whole room seemed to hold its breath.
“Well, if it is the Senate’s decree that these men should die,” Hadrian shrugged, “who am I to argue?”
Sabina’s breath froze. A shiver went through the whole room. Hadrian’s gaze passed over the rows of heads, and she saw a faint smile on his bearded lips.
Titus bowed his head then, inhaling a deep, slow breath. Vix looked like he had turned to stone. One of the other condemned men let out a cry, and the silence in the atrium broke. Vix’s fellow Praetorians shouldered forward to seize shackled wrists; the noise was rising, murmurs and cries mounting from the watching senators. Hadrian looked pleased at the commotion, one hand still toying with his dog’s floppy ear. Sabina knew if the prisoners began to scream, it would all slip away from her.
Quickly now, just as you planned.
She threaded away from Hadrian’s side, making for her sister. She linked an arm through Faustina’s and brought her forward, toward the Emperor’s chair. “Look as beseeching as you can,” she murmured. “And keep the baby from crying.” Faustina was rigid, her eyes screaming horror, but she nodded and tucked the baby’s soft head closer against her shoulder.
“Caesar,” Sabina said, speaking to pierce the din. “I beg a boon for my brother-in-law, Titus Aurelius. He has never seen his own daughter—surely you would allow him a farewell with your niece?” Underlining that last word. “Annia Galeria Faustina the Younger—had she been a boy, my brother-in-law would have named him in your honor.”
Hadrian frowned, but Vix’s hand snapped out and halted the Praetorians who held Titus by the arms. Sabina gave him a flash of her eyes in thanks as she brought Faustina to Titus’s side, turning with a swift gesture so everyone could see the picture they made: the poignant little family with their heads humbly bowed for an emperor’s mercy. Sabina could see the court ripple at the sight. Hadrian had insisted on an audience for this show of casual terror; well, she would use it.
“Your brother-in-law”—Sabina emphasized the your—“will obey the Emperor’s wishes in all things, Caesar. Even to the matter of offering his life. I do hope you will grant this small boon.”
Hadrian studied Titus a moment, and then his smile burst out like sunshine. Such a genuine smile, no one in its light could be anything but warmed. “Indeed,” he said, and rose to clap Titus upon the shoulder. “Brother-in-law! Congratulations upon your marriage to my wife’s sister. I had quite forgotten.”
Lie, Sabina thought. Hadrian forgot nothing.
“The Senate has been hasty indeed, in condemning you,” Hadrian said. “Overhasty. Perhaps I should refuse them their way in this, eh?”
“Family is so important,” Sabina murmured, and refused to recoil as Hadrian’s gaze snapped to her. Do not blink, she thought, staring back at him, and felt sweat begin to roll down her spine. Do not blink, and show no fear.
Faustina was quick to sink to her knees, looking graceful even with a squirming baby in arms. Titus followed suit, but he kept his gaze steady on the Emperor.
“You,” Hadrian said at last, carelessly, “I will spare. Rise, Titus Aurelius.”
Titus bent his head, perhaps to hide the tears Sabina saw spring to his eyes, and kissed the Imperial ring. There was an audible rustle through the atrium. Vix’s hand rose again, signaling his Praetorians, and he strode from the atrium with a hard face as the other four men in their shackles were dragged after him. The old general strode out with his head high, but one of the ex-consuls collapsed shaking and babbling and had to be hauled along by the elbows, his fingers twisted from the doorjamb with a snapping sound that echoed in Sabina’s ears like cracks of thunder.
But only four men would die today. Not five. And the man who had been spared was one of the wealthiest in Rome, as well as one of the best-liked. “Caesar is merciful,” Titus said as he rose, and Sabina heard only the faintest quiver in his voice.
“Caesar is always merciful,” the Emperor continued in the same affable tone.
Tell that to the four men you just sent to their deaths, Sabina thought.
“Besides,” Hadrian continued to Titus just as affably, dropping his voice so only those nearest could hear, “if you prove inconvenient we can always execute you later. Do feel free to go, and acquaint yourself with my niece elsewhere. The sound of fretting children annoys me.”
He turned his back on Faustina’s wax-white face and Titus’s inaudible swallow, snapping his fingers for his stewards, his secretaries, his freedmen and attendants. “The meeting with the Arvals next? Yes, and the Senate tomorrow. After that . . .” He began flipping between the pile of wax tablets in a secretary’s arms; Sabina glanced at her sister and saw them retreat through the atrium without ceremony. “Quite a full calendar for the next month. Gladiatorial games . . . festivals . . . donatives . . . Really, why must an emperor’s early years be entirely taken up with public addresses and trivia?”
A few hours back in Rome, Sabina thought, and he was already bored with it. Travel had always been where her husband’s heart lay. Perhaps I should encourage that. Troublesome husbands were better kept occupied. Surely that went double for troublesome and occasionally murderous husbands. Sabina spared another glance behind her and saw a final flash of Faustina’s blue skirts. They were gone, all three of them, baby Annia’s angry cries fading to safety, and Sabina’s heart contracted violently and then began to beat again. Four men would die this day, and she grieved for them. But not her sister’s husband. Not her oldest friend.
I could not save them all.
“Caesar.” Vix had returned in his lion skin and his cuirass and his steel-gray gaze. “Are the condemned to be given the opportunity to take their own lives?”
“They are not.” The Emperor’s eyes lifted from his wax tablets. “Behead them.”
Vix did not move.
“Bring me their heads,” the Emperor said. “No less than an hour.”
“Four’s a good many necks, Caesar,” Vix said. “Can I have a day?”
Sabina felt a wild urge to laugh. Vix usually had that effect, making her laugh when she should have been weeping or weep when she should have been laughing. Maybe because he didn’t seem to know what fear was. Where other men faltered, Vix just went bashing on through, generally with that same contemptuous show of teeth he gave Hadrian now, his russet head thrown back and his scarred arms crossed over his breastplate.
Hadrian looked meditative. “Maybe I require five heads after all, not just four. I could add yours to the pile, Vercingetorix. No one who squawked at the execution of my brother-in-law would quibble at the addition of an ill-tempered, ill-bred guard.”
Vix’s grin disappeared. “Caesar,” he bit out, clipping the honorific off like an insult—and Sabina stepped forward fast, laying a hand on Hadrian’s sleeve.
“My dear,” she drawled. “Does it suit an emperor’s dignity, trading threats with a guard?”
Vix gave her a contemptuous glance. Hadrian considered her for a moment as well, and Sabina felt pinioned between two broad walls: two tall men vibrating with tension as though they might fly clawing at each other and crush her between them.
Hadrian’s gaze passed over Sabina’s head, meeting Vix’s eyes again. “Four heads,” he said, and his eyes had a blank, anticipatory shine. “One hour. Vibia Sabina, come with me.”
She felt the spike of ice through her throat again, but laid her fingers over his. “Of course.” His flesh had a stone coolness, as though the skin were only a thin coating over granite. She had forgotten it, that cold touch of his. He might have been absent from Rome only a year, but they had not touched flesh against flesh in far longer than that.
Hadrian led her a step or two across the atrium, away from Vix, who had gone to his bloody duty, and toward the pool in the center of the room under the open roof. Others still clustered, Praetorians and freedmen, slaves and courtiers, but none within earshot—and the Emperor stopped, bringing her about to face him. “Do not try to maneuver me, Vibia Sabina.”
Sabina kept her voice bland. “Is that what I’m doing?”
“Yes. You maneuvered me into pardoning your brother-in-law, and you are now attempting to turn my temper away from Vercingetorix.”
“I was thinking of your safety,” she managed to say. “And mine. Vix may be a savage, and gods know he’s as dense as a brick, but he has a strong sword. I never particularly wanted to be Empress, Hadrian, but I have no intention of being sent off to Hades by some madman with a knife because I don’t have a good protector at my back.”
Hadrian smiled faintly. “How blunt you are.”
“You used to like that about me.”
“You used to like a great many things about me.” There had never been love between them, even in the earliest days of cool-headed courtship, but there had once been friendship. Sabina still missed that old camaraderie, when her husband had been an eager world traveler with a thirst to see everything the Empire had to offer.
Hadrian began to walk again, idly circling the pool, his hard hand bringing Sabina with him by the elbow. It seemed an apt moment for a few honeyed words, so Sabina sweetened her voice. “Thank you for sparing my brother-in-law’s life. It was kindly done.”
“No. It was done for a purpose.” Hadrian spoke prosaically. “Execute four men, demonstrate ruthlessness. Spare one, demonstrate mercy.”
“You’d already decided to spare Titus?” Maybe her desperate little tableau with Faustina had been entirely unnecessary. She felt a moment’s anger at the thought—all the racking of her brain these past months, trying to think of a way to extricate him from his fate.
“I had decided to spare one of them,” Hadrian corrected. “Your brother-in-law, I thought, might be best. The death of the legionary commander sends a message to any of my other generals who may prove overambitious; the deaths of the consuls gut the Senate and tell them not to cross me. Titus is a dullard of no particular ambition, and he is family. I assumed you would trot out some little plea for his life, and I decided in advance to grant it.” Hadrian looked down at her: capricious, amused, merry-eyed, cold. “Had I wanted him dead, his head would be in a basket regardless of your pretty pleading.”
“I hope you do. Don’t attempt to manage me in future.”
Sabina laid her challenge down, not flung at his feet like Vix’s but gently unsheathed and offered hilt-first. “Then what is it you do require of me, husband?”
His eyes went over her, considering. “You look well, you know. Most Imperial.” His gaze lingered on the purple draperies, the very proper wig over her shorn head. “You say you have no great wish to be Empress, but now that you are, I suppose we should have a chat about that.”
“Let’s do,” Sabina said sweetly. “Difficult to stay within your lines if I don’t know where you have drawn them.”
Secretaries, chamberlains, senators hovered, impatient for a moment of the Emperor’s time, but Hadrian kept them at bay with a glance. “I am told you spent much of this past year sulking in the country.”
“Plotina was only too happy to shove me out of the way, so I stayed with my sister and her mother. Faustina had a difficult confinement.”
Hadrian brushed that aside. “Your place was at the palace. Not in seclusion.” He paused, and Sabina’s pulse leaped. He suspects, dear gods, he knows . . .
Hadrian spoke. “Were you dallying with a lover?”
Sabina couldn’t help it; she burst out laughing. Slightly hysterical laughter, but Hadrian didn’t seem to hear that. He just lifted his eyebrows.
“I assure you,” Sabina managed to say at last, with utter truthfulness, “I was not dallying with any lover.” Very, very far from it.
“I don’t like Rome, Hadrian, and I don’t like the former Empress either. Why is it such a mystery that I wished to avoid both?”
His lips twitched, and he began to walk again. “That is, perhaps, fair.”
Sabina breathed a little easier, moving along at his side. She’d always been an excellent liar, but Hadrian’s ear for deceit was honed like a hunting dog’s nose for blood. She had absolutely no desire to test his instincts in any lengthy discussion about what she had been doing the previous year. “As you wish.”
“What I wish, now that I am returned to Rome, is that you confine yourself to your new duties as Empress. Do not seek to advise me, manage me, or embarrass me. In the past you’ve shown a tendency for all three. I have been indulgent.” His voice was calm. “No more.”
“I see.” She spoke steadily. “Wear purple and be silent, is that it?”
“Be chaste, as well. You may have had a lover or two in the past—”
“Come, Hadrian. I’m no harlot, and I never was.” Outrage pricked Sabina’s throat as though she’d swallowed a thorn. A handful of discreet and fully acknowledged dalliances outside a marriage we both knew from the beginning would have no passion in it; just a handful compared to your endless parade of bedmates, and now I am the bed-hopping whore?
“You have been both discreet and moderate in your bedmates,” Hadrian allowed. Generous of him. “But now you are an emperor’s wife, and discretion is not enough. You are a symbol of Rome’s virtue. I was willing to turn a blind eye in the past, but an emperor cannot be made a fool of. Do I make myself plain?”
No use asking if Hadrian meant to give up his own bedmates: the strapping young slaves and handsome soldiers with whom he stocked his bed. “You make yourself very plain indeed, husband.”
He looked annoyed at her coolness. “A touch of gratitude would be appreciated. After all, at least I do not require heirs of you. I know how we would both dislike that prospect.”
“Quite.” It was something to be grateful for. They had not shared a bed in years—Sabina had known from the beginning of their courtship that Hadrian preferred male flesh, and it had not troubled her in the slightest. Hadrian had his men and she had her liberty; it had left them free to be friends instead. But they were no longer friends; she no longer had her liberty—and he still had his men.
The words burned her tongue, but she forced them out. “Thank you, Caesar.”
He dropped her hand, summoning his dogs, his aides, and his guards with a snap of his fingers. “Return to your chambers. I meet with the Arvals next, and your presence is not requested.”
Old Empress Plotina heard that as she approached, and she looked smug. “Dear Publius,” she began, but he strode past her without a glance, calling for his secretaries.
“I don’t think it matters anymore who is Empress or former Empress, Plotina,” Sabina said. “Dear Publius means to do it all without interference from either of us.”
Plotina sniffed as she stalked out after her protégé, but Sabina did not think Hadrian would be hanging on her advice as he had when her patronage had been worth something. The words of a curse rang through Sabina’s mind, and she could see the letters stark and black as she carved them: May the Empress die alone, neglected, bitter, and without power.
But I am the Empress too, Sabina thought with a wrench of her stomach. And I am just as alone, just as neglected, just as bitter—and just as powerless. How many empty echoing years stretched out before her? Sabina had no notion, but the dread of it raked at the back of her eyes like hot claws.
The atrium had emptied, the court trailing off whispering of the men who had died, wondering if more men were to die and what their names would be. Sabina had been left alone with only a few slaves and pages, maintaining their posts at the walls and barely hiding, through lowered lids, their curiosity.
Sabina didn’t know how long she stood there, hands folded uselessly over her purple silks, but at last she heard boots on the mosaics behind her. She schooled her face, turning to face Vix because she’d know those footsteps anywhere. He had been almost friendly earlier that morning—his gray eyes had grinned at her in their old way, as he’d used to grin at her when he was a cocky boy. But she turned now and saw him grimmer than he’d ever looked in his life; a scarred soldier with no pity left in him. He had his gladius in one hand, unsheathed, and a sack in the other.
Both dripped blood.
Sabina’s hand went to her mouth. A ripple went through the watching pages and slaves, and she heard a faint moan. Someone bleating idiotically, “Is that—”
Vix whipped around at the voice. “What do you think it is?”
Sabina swallowed hard on the well of nausea in her throat, unable to take her eyes from the bulging of the sack. “He will be hated for this,” she heard herself whisper.
Vix’s voice had a harsh grate like iron on stone. “Do you think he cares?”
She gave another hard swallow. A drop of blood collected at the bottom of the sack in Vix’s fist, fell with a thick plop to the mosaics.
“The two consuls begged,” Vix said. “The governor of Dacia knelt for me—tried to be brave. The commander—Hell’s gates. I used to serve under him in Parthia—”
“Stop.” Sabina cut his words off with a sweep of her hand. They were drawing eyes, she saw—the Empress and the Praetorian speaking so vehemently—and she lowered her voice. “They’re dead, Vix. Gods know I pity them, but they had no chance for mercy. At least Titus isn’t among them.”
“I may still have to kill him.” Vix’s eyes were like pits. “Tomorrow. Next year. Who knows? Your husband made me into his killer, and God knows he loves to kill things. I wonder how long he’ll stare into this sack here, when I lay it at his feet.”
Sabina met his gaze. “I’m sorry it had to be you.”
“I don’t want your pity.”
“We used to be friends—”
“I can’t afford friends. And you spent the last year ignoring me.”
A secret could be a heavy thing; Sabina had discovered that during the past year. It could hang in the pit of the stomach like a burning stone. “You have no idea why—”
He pushed past her, his armored shoulder brushing her bare arm. His footsteps went on without slowing in the direction the Emperor had taken. Sabina closed her eyes a moment, summoning a face like marble. She wanted a basin to vomit into, a pillow to rage into, a shoulder to cry into, and she would have none of those things. Because an Empress was never alone.
All hail the Empress, she thought savagely. Vibia Sabina, Empress of the seven hills, mistress of Rome, lady of the Eternal City.
A.D. 122, Spring
Annia Galeria Faustina never meant to cause trouble. Trouble just happened.
“I won’t do it again,” she promised every time she did something wrong, and meant it. She tried to follow the rules. It wasn’t her fault she kept finding cracks between them.
“Just be gentler,” the housekeeper scolded. “Girls should be gentle!”
“Gentle is boring.” Annia liked to play hard, and guests took her for a boy sometimes, approving of her scabbed knees and the ferocious scowl she wore when she sent the trigon ball flying clear up to the roof of the villa. “That boy will conquer us a new province someday,” the guests would chuckle, and then they were embarrassed when Annia’s mother said with amusement, “She’s a girl.” After that, they somehow didn’t approve anymore.
“That child should be inside sewing, not climbing on roofs!” Annia had heard two old ladies whisper, appalled because she’d gone climbing after the trigon ball and then fallen off the terra-cotta roof. But she didn’t cry. Annia never cried. Her father had told her the story of the Spartan boy, the one who let a fox chew his vitals open rather than cry and give his position away to his enemies. Annia tried letting one of the meaner vineyard dogs chew on her foot, biting hard on a stick first so she could match the Spartan boy for stoicism. But the dog wouldn’t chew hard enough to get any real blood flowing, and then the nursemaid came and made all kinds of silly fuss.
“You’re going to get in trouble one of these days,” Annia’s mother sighed.
“I’m always in trouble,” Annia complained, because how was she supposed to know she shouldn’t let dogs chew her toes off unless somebody told her?
“No, real trouble, my love. Because you’re not afraid of anything, and that’s tempting the Fates.”
Annia shrugged. She had long decided, when her father told her the story of the Three Fates, that they had it in for her. And this morning her mother wanted to take her to the Domus Flavia, where everything was breakable and the whole world was watching. That was tempting the Fates. “Don’t make me go!”
“Well, we all leave for Britannia soon. I’ll be back soon enough, but this could be your aunt’s last chance to see you all year.”
“I just saw her at the old Empress’s funeral.” The woman her mother had always called Old Stoneface Plotina had gone up in smoke on her funeral pyre not two days ago, and that had been quite enough standing still and being good to last Annia all year. “Aunt Sabina doesn’t like me, anyway.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Annia felt her mother’s hands tying off the end of her plait. “Of course she likes you.”
“No, she doesn’t,” Annia said with deep conviction. And the shuttered look on Aunt Sabina’s face as Annia trailed into the Imperial gardens in her mother’s wake was almost vindicating. Told you, Annia thought, meeting those inscrutable eyes.
“You shouldn’t have brought her, Faustina. She’ll end up packed in a box.” The Empress waved a hand toward her quarters, where a stream of slaves bustled. “My maids are trying to pack the entire palace.”
“They need me to supervise,” Annia’s mother decided. “I am packed already.”
“I’m sure you are. Are you certain you want to come all the way to Britannia?” The Empress patted the stone bench beside her. “Sea travel, in your condition—”
“Nonsense, I’ve never felt better.” Annia’s mother gave her rising stomach a proud thump. “It’s good breeding stock I come from! My mother never had a moment’s trouble, and neither will I.”
The Empress still looked anxious. She was fingering something in her black silk lap; Annia craned her neck to see what. Something dirty-looking. “I am sorry, you know,” the Empress went on. “Titus hates travel, and I really have no idea why Hadrian insisted he escort me. I’m perfectly capable of crossing to Britannia myself.”
Annia didn’t really remember the Emperor—he’d left last year on a grand tour of Germania and Gaul. She knew, however, that the Emperor didn’t like her father, which was very strange. Everybody liked her father.
“Can I come to Britannia?” she blurted out.
Her mother laughed. “You’d challenge a Druid to single combat, and then he’d cook you over a fire!”
“I’m not afraid of any old Druid,” Annia said scornfully.
“What a fearless girl you are,” Empress Sabina commented, which was really just a way of saying, No, I don’t like you and I don’t want you coming along to Britannia or anywhere else.
“Run and play for a moment,” her mother said, and Annia went up the garden path around a statue of a satyr. But she doubled back through the myrtle bushes, behind the bench where her mother and her aunt sat. Whenever her mother told her to go play, that meant that interesting things were about to get said.
And sure enough: “All right, Vibia Sabina. What’s that dirty thing you’re clutching?”
A rustle as Aunt Sabina passed something over—a folded-over tablet made of lead or something else dark and heavy.
Annia’s mother took it with a groan. “Sabina, really. You made a curse tablet?”
“Five years ago. Feel free to call me foolish.”
“Who did you curse? Let me see . . . ah. ‘To the goddesses Diana, Hecate, and Proserpina. I invoke you holy ones by your names to punish Empress Pompeia Plotina—’ Well, you couldn’t pick a nastier old cow to curse, may the gods keep her rotten soul, but I’ve never taken you for superstitious!”
“Yes, well, I was in a state. She spent fifteen years calling me a whore—she made Hadrian Emperor—she turned him against Titus and got him stuck in that cell—”
“It was all I could do to keep a suitably sad expression at her funeral pyre,” Annia’s mother admitted. “I wanted to dance round the flames singing!”
“So did I.” Aunt Sabina didn’t sound like she wanted to sing and dance, though. She sounded thoughtful. “When I first returned to Rome as Empress, Hadrian was still off in the east—I didn’t have anyone to share the palace with but Plotina, smirking and giving me orders. And I remembered a rather nice old witch in Pannonia when I was traveling years before, who told me all about curses and how to make them . . .”
“I’d say your witch knew her work.” Annia’s mother continued reading off the tablet. “‘May the Empress die alone, neglected, bitter, and without power.’”
“Strange, really,” Aunt Sabina mused. “She spent her whole life working toward one thing: getting Hadrian made Emperor. And once she achieved it, she was finished. Hadrian tossed her aside like an old shoe. Frustration and bitterness and getting exactly what she wanted—that was what killed her.”
“Now you’re being fanciful. What killed her was a burst heart!”
“I’m not sorry she’s gone.” Aunt Sabina’s voice hardened. “But it’s still strange . . . I spent a good many years wishing her dead. Now that she is, I think it will make very little difference. I’m still Empress, after all. And like her, I’ll die alone, neglected, bitter, and powerless.”
“You,” Annia’s mother said briskly, “are not just being fanciful, but morbid.”
“I am being realistic. The Emperor only summons me to Britannia because he’s discovered there are ceremonial duties I can discharge. The kind of staid public appearances that bore him. And I have to obey.” A shake of Aunt Sabina’s sleek head. “That’s not power of any kind, Faustina.”
“Then what is it?”
“Duty. Empresses live by it. I married a madman, and the Fates put him on the throne—that was a terrible thing. Now I’m to go to Britannia and preside over the dedication of temples and the drone of dinner parties, and that’s merely dull—but I can’t escape either duty.”
Annia decided she didn’t like duty. When she grew up she just wasn’t going to do it.
“Looking the brighter side of things,” Annia’s mother said at last, “now that the old cow is dead, you won’t have anyone calling you a whore across your dinner table.”
The Empress laughed, and Annia tried to wriggle closer. All this talk about curses and hearts bursting was fascinating. But she bumped against a stone nymph, and before she could make a grab, over it went and the carved hand broke off.
“Annia Galeria Faustina!” her mother called. “Stop eavesdropping!”
“Sorry.” Annia winced, crawling out of the bushes. “I didn’t mean to break it—”
“I’m glad you did,” the Empress said. “I’ve always hated that nymph. She has the most sickly expression.”
Annia’s mother laughed, rising. “You two say your good-byes. I’m going to go take charge of your packing, Sabina. Or we won’t be ready to leave until Saturnalia.”
Don’t leave me, Annia thought, eyes traveling a touch uneasily to the curse tablet still lying on the stone bench, but her mother was already gone. And the Empress of Rome didn’t look all that happy about it either, Annia thought.
“Well—” The Empress rose, fluid and swaying in her black stola as she dropped her shawl over the curse tablet. She moved like one of her cats, a kind of lithe, connected glide. “What did you hear, little eavesdropper?”
“Nothing,” Annia said instantly.
“Really? Because you strike me as quite an observant little thing. Just like your mother.”
Annia offered her most wide-eyed expression, the one she adopted whenever anything turned up broken. You kill people, she thought. You write people’s names in curses, and their hearts burst. She didn’t know what Aunt Sabina meant about being powerless, because killing people with curse tablets sounded like power to Annia. It was children who were powerless. Children couldn’t do anything.
The Empress was still surveying Annia top to toe. “What?” Annia asked, edging backward.
“You’ll probably be as tall as your father by the time I come back. You already have his hair.”
“No, I don’t,” Annia objected before remembering that empresses weren’t supposed to be contradicted, and neither were family, and Aunt Sabina was both. But did that count if they were wrong? Because Annia’s hair was a soft sandy red, not brown like her father’s with his little bits of gray.
“Right here”—Aunt Sabina touched a finger to the crown of her head—“you’ve got a stray lock that sticks up no matter how hard you smooth it down. Just like your father’s.”
Annia touched her hair, defensive. “People think I’m a boy,” she found herself saying.
“Why do they think that?”
“The way I play.”
“And how do you play?”
Annia jutted out her jaw. “To win.”
Aunt Sabina didn’t smile, as most people did. People smiled with indulgence or they smiled with reproof, but they smiled, and Annia hated that. “Win what?” the Empress asked quite seriously.
Annia shrugged. “Everything.”
“And you shall win.” Aunt Sabina knelt down so she was on eye-level. “You shall win everything; I’ll make sure of it. Even from Britannia, I’ll be watching for you, Annia Galeria Faustina. I’ll imagine you starting your lessons, and playing with slave children, and scraping your knees. I’ll send you presents—a pot of woad like the old warriors used to wear, because you’d rather have war paint than dolls . . .”
I would, Annia thought, but didn’t say so. The Empress already seemed to know her far too well. The silence stretched.
But Aunt Sabina only smiled. “Let’s go find your mother.”
Annia kept the Empress in front of her the entire walk back through the gardens, warily. “Hug your aunt good-bye,” her mother said as they left, but Annia shook her head. “No,” she said, even though it made her mother frown and Aunt Sabina veil her watchful eyes with her lashes. Because Annia wasn’t afraid of heights or spiders, strangers or blood or the dark—but strange, fascinating, curse-casting Aunt Sabina definitely made her nervous.
Gesoriacum, a port in Gaul
Any soldier has his good-luck charms; the things that sift out through the rough passage of nomadic campaigns. The things that matter, for whatever reason. I had my own collection stowed in my pack. An amulet of Mars, given me by my father to keep me safe in battle. A gold ring with the engraved letters PARTHICUS, given off former Emperor Trajan’s own hand when I saved him from a Parthian archer. An earring, silver and glinting with garnets, from a woman I cared for and shouldn’t have. A blue scarf from the hair of yet another woman, one I still cared for. Small things, because a soldier never accumulates more than he can carry on a long day’s march.
But I’d somehow accumulated more over the years. I’d accumulated people, people I couldn’t divest as easily as I’d cut off my friend Titus. I couldn’t really afford carrying people about in my heart, not with an emperor’s enmity hanging over my head—but I did. And my heart was singing that morning in Gesoriacum as I thought, She’s here!
I was supposed to be doing any number of things: making preparations for the Emperor’s imminent arrival, reading a stack of reports from those officious little supply clerks called the frumentarii with their endless tattling of the latest rumors. And I was ignoring it all, rushing down the dock with my heart fluttering in my throat, because my wife had finally disembarked.
She let our daughters tackle me first, both of them pelting across the docks with their dark curls flying. They were getting big, but not too big yet to swoop against my armored chest, one in each arm. I smiled at their mother over their heads, and she smiled back.
“I got seasick,” Dinah complained, wrinkling her nose. My eldest, a fastidious little thing even at eight. At least, I thought she was eight. Children, even my own, all looked more or less the same age to me: small. “I threw up everywhere.”
“So did I,” Chaya confessed, looking worried. My second daughter always looked worried. She’d been born in the middle of an earthquake in Antioch; the world to Chaya was an uneasy place where even the ground under your feet couldn’t be trusted. “Antinous didn’t get seasick! It’s not fair!”
“Sorry, girls, you both inherited my stomach. Next time I’ll send for you by road.” Since it was summer and the seas calm, I’d had my family brought to Gaul by boat—even on a calm sea, I’d have been heaving my guts up just as badly as my little ones. I kissed their dark curls, setting them down so I could take my wife in my arms at last, but my tall son came at me next, and I clasped him by the shoulder rather than embracing him because he was sixteen and getting too big to be tousled and hugged. “Hello, Narcissus.”
“I hate it when you call me that,” he complained, ruffling a hand over his curly hair. Narcissus was the boy in the myth who was so beautiful he’d fallen in love with his own reflection, and my adopted son Antinous put him to shame: straight-nosed, honey-haired, near as tall as me but far more graceful, with a lean-muscled body like a young Apollo and cheekbones that could cut marble. Unlike Narcissus, though, Antinous had not one drop of vanity.
“Antinous got in trouble,” Dinah said gleefully from my hip. “On the boat—”
“Tattler,” he accused her.
“You got caught kissing a girl in the hold!”
I gave him a look. “Was it someone’s wife?”
“She kissed me!” He grinned guiltily, and I could see his beautiful Bithynian mother in his smile. She hadn’t been a great passion of mine, just a girl who had kept my bed warm, but I felt enough responsibility to take charge of her young son after she died. I knew what happened to pretty children like Antinous when they didn’t have anyone to care for them. Even though I hadn’t sired him, he’d long since become my son. There’s more in life than blood.
“It was a clerk’s wife Antinous got caught kissing, and a painted little flirt of a thing she was, too,” my wife said tartly, and my heart jumped to hear her voice. I pushed through all my various children and at last, at last, scooped their mother up into my arms.
“I see you missed me, Tribune.” Mirah wound her arms tight about my neck: my russet-haired wife with her short freckled nose and her eyes a warm blue against the green scarf she’d tied about her hair to keep it from tangling in the wind. My wife, a Jew like my own mother, a Jew with all the fire of her hotheaded cousins who swore that one day they would liberate Judaea from Rome—all their fire, but a good deal more sense. Sense, fire, and sweetness too, and when you put those things together with that snap of laughter in her blue eyes and enough skill in the kitchen to make angels weep, you had a very grateful ex-legionary and current desk mule who counted himself lucky.
My daughters were wrinkling their little noses and complaining about the dockyard stench, and I laughed. “We won’t be staying long.” Not in obscene and teeming Gesoriacum with its docks swarming with sailors and pickpockets; the air smelling of brine and unwashed bodies; the views over the rooftops all roiling ocean and the sails of triremes and somewhere beyond it, mist-bound Britannia. A fascinating sight any day, but today I just snugged my wife in to one side and led my family to their temporary home.
“I like it,” Mirah decided, fists on hips as she looked through the atrium to the tiny wall fountain that managed to fill the little garden with a pleasant plashing sound. Antinous was loping through the atrium like a young colt, and the girls were squealing and squabbling over the little chamber they’d share. “Of course, I’ll have to cover that fresco—”
“Later,” I said, and tossed her over one shoulder.
“Put me down!” Mirah laughed, squirming against my grip. “Vix!”
“Antinous,” I said, and pointed at the girls. “Take ’em out and keep ’em out till midafternoon.”
“Done.” I heard his laughter as he steered the girls through the atrium, and I didn’t even wait for the door to thud closed before I was carrying my wife toward the bed.
“Put me down,” she was saying, drumming her fist against my back. “This is very undignified!”
“And you’re very disobedient. I should beat you.” I tipped Mirah into the middle of the wide sleeping couch. “Go on, scold me. You’re so pretty when you scold.”
She dissolved into laughter and I dissolved into her, my tart and tender wife. My breastplate and greaves clattered down into a pile on the floor, her gown billowed down on top, and her russet hair came loose from its scarf in a warm banner. I kissed her and kissed her, moving over her, moving through her, and then I kissed her again because I had too many unkissed months to make up for. “Missed you,” I murmured into her mouth in the quiet that came after, her warm forehead still pressed against mine on the pillow. “Hell’s gates, but I missed you.”
“Are you still sorry I insisted on coming to Gaul?” The ripple of laughter still came through her words, lazier now.
“No,” I admitted. “Though I should be. You should have stayed in Rome, you and the girls.”
“What, moldered there another eight months like we did when the Emperor dragged you all over Germania doing Prefect Clarus’s job . . .”
“Someone has to.” The last Praetorian Prefect had been summarily fired after the four executions at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign—the Emperor had managed to dump most of the blame for those executions on him. “Your overhastiness in making the arrests caused great ill will in the Senate,” was how he put it, eyes dancing with amusement at the man’s astonishment, because after all, he’d done nothing but follow orders. His replacement, Prefect Clarus, was a wine sack, so I did all the work while that bloated prick enjoyed the rank.
Mirah was still arguing. “Maybe the Emperor will station you back in Rome for the next leg of the journey? He could take Prefect Turbo with him instead.”
“He trusts Turbo more than he trusts me. When it comes to leaving one of us out of sight for months, anyway.” Marcius Turbo was the other Praetorian Prefect—there are always two, largely so you can have one kill the other if someone gets too big for his boots. Turbo was a grizzled, matter-of-fact old soul as rough around the edges as I was; he had a mind for administration and he was practical enough to work directly with me once it was clear that his fellow Prefect was useless. Turbo handled the administrative duties in Rome while I handled the Emperor’s security when he traveled. It was a sensible arrangement, but I didn’t like it. For one thing, it took me away from Mirah, because I usually refused to take her along. “You should have stayed behind,” I grumbled, but couldn’t resist tracing a slow circle around the point of her shoulder. “You’d be safer.”
“You really think the Emperor will concern himself with the likes of us?” She gave me one of those wifely looks, amused at my thickheadedness. “Just to keep you reined in?”
“He likes keeping his thumb on people—even little people. I don’t want you anywhere near me if he gets in one of his moods.”
“When he decides he wants to punish someone.” My stomach tightened at the thought of Hadrian’s idle, shining gaze turning on Mirah.
“What does it matter if we’re under his eye or not? If the Emperor of Rome wants to find your family, he can find us!”
“But I want you out of his sight.” An old argument, and I attempted to distract her by nuzzling her neck. But she remained undistracted. In fact, her eyes had a mutinous glitter that meant challenge.
I lifted my lips from her throat and leveled a hard stare at her instead, the one that shriveled my centurions inside their breastplates. “Glare all you like, Mirah, but you and the children will keep to your own apartments as long as we travel together. You don’t visit my quarters in the Praetorian barracks, not ever. You’ll stay out of sight, and I’ll come to you when I can, just as I do in Rome when I’m not toddling along in the Emperor’s shadow.”
She gave a scowl to match mine, turning on one side to face me. I ran my palm slowly over the slope of her hip, banded with alternating stripes of shadow from the shutters of the window. “Isn’t it good,” I persisted, letting my hand slide to her knee, “that I can at least afford to keep you separate?” It did pay well, the Praetorian Guard. “And I’ll be able to see you more often. Hadrian sent me ahead to make preparations—as soon as he arrives, I’ll press to make the crossing to Britannia to prepare again. I’ll stay ahead of him, lay preparations for his retinue wherever he goes, and let the centurions tramp around in his shadow for a change. It means I can arrange my own days,” I insisted, aware I was losing the argument though she wasn’t saying a word. “You know we might be going as far as northern Britannia, after Londinium? My mother and father settled near Vindolanda. Never mind you getting the chance to meet them, I haven’t seen them since I was eighteen—”
“There are other places we could go, you know.” Mirah’s voice was noncommittal. “Besides Britannia.”
My hand dropped from her hip.
Her eyes met mine. “If you despise the Emperor so much, we could leave Rome altogether.”
I groaned, flopping over on my back. “That again?”
“You agreed you’d think about leaving the Emperor’s service,” Mirah persisted.
“I have thought on it,” I mumbled. “I am thinking on it.”
Mirah raised her eyebrows. “And?”
“You think the Emperor will be accommodating if I tell him I feel like quitting my post?”
“You’d find a way, Vix. You always find a way when you really want something.”
I had no answer for her. My stouthearted wife had been born and raised in Rome, but she’d never uttered a word of complaint coming with me on my legion travels. She’d gone with me all over Parthia; had shared tents and wagons and cramped temporary apartments while I marched on Trajan’s eastern campaigns. She’d tipped spiders out of her wine and swept sand out of her sheets; she’d given birth once in a tent and once in the wreckage of an earthquake and raised her babies in the makeshift camps of the east, and now the rented rooms of the west—and I couldn’t blame her if she wanted a proper home. Somewhere I could share her bed nightly rather than creeping in every third day like I was visiting a whore; somewhere she could pray to her own God without being spit on by Romans who thought Jews mutilated babies. And when the last rebellion in Judaea had been put down and Mirah’s parents had decided to leave Rome for their home province, well, I suppose I couldn’t blame her that she’d set her sights on joining them.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking you to leave Trajan’s service.” She snuggled into my shoulder. “I know what he meant to you. But from everything I’ve heard about Emperor Hadrian, he’s a different sort of fish altogether.”
I called him something fouler and more anatomically unlikely than a fish. Mirah smacked me whenever I swore where the children might be able to overhear, but not when we were alone. She’d probably store the curses up to use herself when she next broke a plate.
“Don’t think you can change the subject by swearing, Vercingetorix. Trajan is gone. And we aren’t chained down by legionary pay anymore. We could travel in comfort and live well when we arrive in Judaea. My parents do, and Uncle Simon—you’ve read their letters. We don’t have to take farmland; I know you’re a city dweller down to your bones, but we can take a house like this one in Bethar.” Her voice softened. “All my family are there, and they love you like one of their own. Uncle Simon used to fight with you in the Tenth Fidelis; he’s told me all the stories how you’ve saved each other’s lives! So why don’t you want to join them?”
I knew why, but I couldn’t tell her. I’d been a soldier since I was nineteen years old, and now I was past thirty-five, and I didn’t know how to do anything else. What would I be in Bethar, sitting about a house all day watching my children grow and my sword rust? A former gladiator, a failed bodyguard, a renegade legionary? A man with no master, no honor, no cause—a man with nothing at all.
I sat up on the bed, ruffling a hand over my hair, and Mirah sat up too, molding her soft form against my back. Her voice was muted against my shoulder. “You despise the Emperor, Vix. So why are you so bent on serving him?”
She wasn’t wrong. I’d happily watch Hadrian choke on his own blood.
But Hell’s gates, I couldn’t let it happen on my watch.
Look. It wasn’t much, being a palace guard, but it was what I had. Every Praetorian in the Guard braced instinctively when I passed by, because they knew I’d roast them over a slow fire if I caught them slacking. I’d told the whole Guard I’d turn them into men of Rome and not some choir of eunuchs, and I had. They called me a gutter-mouthed flogger who buggered goats, but it wasn’t my job to be liked. It was my job to be respected, and I was. Because I did my duty, and I did it well.
“Do you even know how to fail?” I remember a girl teasing me once—the girl whose earring I still carried in my pack alongside Mirah’s blue scarf. She was right, that girl. I didn’t know how to fail. I didn’t know how to stop doing what I was so good at: guarding a man I hated, a man who understood me and used me against myself.
But how could I tell Mirah that? How can you tell your wife that you need a master as much as you need her happiness? That she probably shouldn’t have married me at all, because she didn’t deserve to deal with all the dark worries I carried with me alongside my collection of good-luck tokens?
So I gave her knuckles a kiss where her hands had twined around my shoulders, and rose. “I should be returning to duty.”
Mirah let out her breath in a short rush, and I thought I heard her mutter something in Aramaic. “When does the Emperor arrive?”
“God knows.” I shrugged into my tunic, slid into the armholes of my breastplate. “He’s summoning his bitch of an empress to join him first, so it might be as long as a month. He’s still reviewing legions in the south.”
Mirah didn’t move. I focused on tying my sandals, adjusting my campaign tokens. I flung the battered lion skin across my shoulders, and I couldn’t help glancing up. She still sat in the middle of the bed, her russet hair tumbling down her naked back, her small capable hands linked around her drawn-up knees, looking at me. At once I became absorbed in readjusting the gladius at my side.
“I don’t understand,” she said quietly. “I really don’t.”
I shrugged. She looked at me a moment longer, and then she slid off the sleeping couch and back into her clothes. “I’ll be back tonight,” I said, feeling helpless and defensive, resentful and aching all at once. “I’m glad you like the rooms.”
She gave me her little sideways smile as she tied up her hair. “I do like the rooms.”
But she’d like them better if they were in Judaea.
“They’re staring,” Chaya whispered, peeking around Antinous’s hip. “Those men!”
“Just ignore them, little monkey.” Antinous gave her hand a squeeze, smiling down at his sister. “Drunks at a wine shop will stare at anything.”
“They only stare if you are along with us,” Dinah said, skipping on his other side.
“Don’t be silly!” Antinous moved his sisters past the cluster of bleary-eyed drunks. Ex-legionaries by the look of them, with whores straddling their laps. He could hear a mutter as they passed—Pretty, pretty; I’d ride that boy like a mule—
Antinous raised his voice, deliberately loud. “Shall we go back, girls? I’ll help you unpack!” But he could still hear the mutters behind, and lip-smacking noises. Pretty, pretty . . .
Whenever Antinous saw his own face reflected in a bowl of water or his adopted mother’s small hand-glass, he stared at it in puzzlement. A face. The same face he’d always had. A straight nose; a chin just starting to prickle with a man’s beard; a mop of curly dark-blond hair. Just a face, and yet all his life it had made trouble. Other boys came at him fists raised because of that face, thinking that he was too pretty to know how to throw a punch (as if anyone raised by Vix would grow up not knowing how to fight!). Now that he was older, the other boys glared and accused Antinous of looking at their girls. Either way it meant he had no friends his own age. And strangers were no better. As long as Antinous could remember, he’d heard mutters when he passed by, just like the mutters from the wine shop. His very first clear memory was of a hard-faced woman in Germania, a neighbor who had taken him in when he was orphaned very young: “You’re a beauty, aren’t you?” Pinching his chin in sharp fingers. “Just like your mother. I can make a few coins off you someday.”
Antinous couldn’t remember his mother—just a vague impression of honey-colored hair like his own. He wondered if her face had made problems for her, too. If the thing the world called beauty was always more trouble than it was worth.
“Back already, Narcissus?” a voice hailed as Antinous and his sisters came round the corner. “I thought I told you to stay lost for the rest of the afternoon!”
“The girls got bored.” Antinous smiled at the tall figure standing with one shoulder jammed against the lintel. His second clear memory from childhood was of that same granite-hard figure in battered armor, looming in the doorway of the woman in Germania. Those shoulders in their lion skin had blocked out the sun, and Antinous had thought he was looking at a god. Maybe I was. The only reason that hard-faced woman hadn’t made any money off Antinous or his face was that Vercingetorix the Red had tossed him over one shoulder and snarled, “He’s coming with me.”
Dinah and Chaya released Antinous’s hands, flying to their father. Vix dropped a kiss on each dark head. “Inside. Your mother wants you.”
“Yes, Father,” they chorused, and that made Antinous sigh just a little. They were Vix’s daughters, blood of his blood, so of course they called him Father. “What do I call you?” Antinous had asked as a boy, paralyzed with shyness, knowing with all his heart what he wanted to call this godlike man who had rescued him.
But no. “You had a father, not that you knew him, and it wasn’t me,” the brisk reply had come. “So Vix will do.”
Antinous couldn’t remember the man who had sired him. All he had in the world was a tall centurion in a lion skin, and he loved that man more than life. Father. But he only called Vix that in his mind.
“Walk with me?” Vix asked. “There’s a decent bathhouse and gymnasium opposite the barracks, and I could use a sweat.”
Antinous hesitated. “Mirah won’t mind?”
“Why would she?”
Because she gets jealous, Antinous thought. It was better when Vix wasn’t there—then she smiled when Antinous crouched down to play with the girls or helped hoist the laundry basket. “Not many boys know how to braid hair or bleach linen,” Mirah would say, as she’d been saying since Antinous was a little boy trying so hard to be the best son, the best brother. To earn his place. “You’re a gem among sons, Antinous!” She said it with such unconscious affection, son. But when Vix came home from his travels or his long guard shifts . . .
Well. Jealous wasn’t the right word. There wasn’t an envious bone in Mirah’s body; Antinous knew that. But he couldn’t help but notice that whenever he came into that laughing, shoulder-thumping embrace with his father, when the two of them teased and joked and got out swords to spar—well, Mirah looked sad. As though wondering why the God she prayed to so fervently hadn’t given her a son of her own for Vix to tease and spar with. A son who could call Vix “Father.”
“Your mother will be another hour at least moving all the furniture,” Vix was saying, oblivious to Antinous’s musing. “Best thing we can do is get out of her way. Why do women do that, anyway?” he wondered, swinging out of the doorway. “She’ll move every couch into a different room, then decide she liked it better the way it was!”
“Let’s run while we can,” Antinous agreed.
He slouched along easily at his father’s side, companionably silent. They were almost of a height, and Antinous almost as broad through the shoulder, but there the similarities stopped. Nobody whispered foul things on the street when he walked with Vix. His father moved with a ferocious swagger like a man who owned the earth. Antinous wondered sometimes if Vix had ever been unsure of anything—if he’d ever been Antinous’s age, wondering what the world held in store and what was his place in it.
Mostly Antinous thought the answer to that was No.
“Emperor Hadrian,” he asked finally. “Arriving soon?”
“Yes.” His father never had much to say about the man he served.
“And he’s traveling to Britannia afterward?”
A savage chuckle. “If he doesn’t drown on the crossing.”
Antinous let it drop. He’d never seen the Emperor except as an occasional distant figure on parade in a purple cloak, but he knew his father hated the man. Something to do with Emperor Trajan’s death, and his father’s transfer from his beloved Tenth Fidelis to the Praetorian Guard. Get Vix going, and he’d convince you Emperor Hadrian was responsible for every evil in the Empire.
“So,” Antinous asked. “You aren’t going to scold me about kissing the clerk’s wife on the boat, are you? Because Mirah already burned my ear off—”
Vix laughed. “Better she saw you kissing the clerk’s wife than the clerk.”
“Oh, he made a try at me, too.” Antinous squatted down on his heels, stretching a hand out to a dog skulking through the gutter. The poor thing looked half-starved. “Mirah just didn’t catch that part.”
“Good. You know how she’d be about the sin of it.”
“And you’re not?” Antinous whistled softly at the dog. “Come here, boy—”
“You’re sixteen! It’s your time to play. Not your fault if all the girls and the boys fall at your feet.”
Antinous had to admit there were advantages to having a face like his, even if it caused trouble. Around the age of fifteen, he’d started noticing that it was easy to get women’s attention—they sort of fell on him if he smiled. Men, too. The clerk’s wife had been soft and buxom in his arms; the clerk had been rough and demanding, and Antinous had enjoyed both. He gave another low whistle and the dog sniffed at his hand. “There,” Antinous crooned, feeding him a crust left over from the rolls he’d bought his sisters.
“You should have a dog,” his father decided.
“Mirah says she’s not running a menagerie so I can’t keep bringing home strays to patch up.” Wistfully Antinous managed to stroke the stray dog’s nose before it went dancing out of reach. “And you know how the girls are about fleas—”
“Bugger that! A boy needs a dog. After we get to Britannia, maybe. Bad enough having two little girls vomiting their way through the crossing without adding a vomiting dog.” Vix tousled his hair. “Let’s get ourselves to the gymnasium, and we’ll spar a few rounds, Narcissus.”
“Don’t call me that,” Antinous groused, but he liked the nickname, and his father knew it. Because Vix, unlike most people, valued what Antinous could do rather than what he looked like. He’d insisted from the first that Antinous learn to fight, learn to ride, learn the sword—had stood back, called corrections, picked Antinous up by the scruff of the neck when he fell down, praised him when he succeeded. Made me useful, Antinous thought. Not just pretty.
Vix could call him Narcissus, but nobody else. Vix—unlike the drunks and their whores, the clerk and his wife—saw past his face.
“I want the spear this time,” Antinous said. “The spear has longer reach.”
“And a gladius has edge and point to kill your enemy. Practice with that.”
“Race you for it?” Antinous said, seeing the bathhouse with its attached gymnasium loom up ahead. “First to the door wins!” And he took off, feinting through the crowd like a shadow, knowing his father in all his armor and fur would never catch up.
“Bloody cheat!” he heard Vix howl behind him, laughing.
I love you, Father, Antinous thought. But didn’t say it.
Sabina made huge sad eyes. “Please, Titus?”
“No,” her brother-in-law said. “You are my friend and my Empress, but this is too much to ask. Sit beside Servianus at dinner?”
At Titus’s side, Faustina shuddered.
“Surely you can’t object to our Emperor’s illustrious brother-in-law as a dinner companion,” Sabina said, straight-faced. “He’s the most virtuous man in Rome, after all.”
“He’s a crashing bore,” said Faustina. “He spent the last dinner party telling me about the declining standard of virtue among Roman wives.”
“While looking down your stola?” Sabina asked.
“No. He really is the most virtuous man in Rome.”
“And a man of no taste,” Titus decreed. “Virtue or not, no man of true discernment would fail to look down my wife’s stola.”
“If I put him beside Hadrian,” Sabina persisted, “he’ll drone all evening about Hadrian’s need to appoint an heir, and that puts Hadrian in a black humor for days. And since the Emperor and I will be taking the road for Vindolanda soon, and you two will be going back to Rome, I’ll have to bear all that black humor myself. So indulge me?”
Titus sighed. “Very well, I shall fall on the sword. Show me to Servianus’s couch.”
“And I’ll tackle the Emperor,” Faustina conceded. “Let’s see if I can’t coax him into a better mood, shall I?”
Sabina watched her sister’s smile turn from something steel-edged to something brilliant as she sallied into the triclinium: a column of sunshine-yellow silk with fine gold chains webbing her blond hair, and a swan-feather fan setting up a gentle flutter just like her lashes. No one can dissemble like my little sister, Sabina admired. You’d never guess that Faustina had once stared at Hadrian in utter terror that he would take her husband’s life. She was hanging on his every word as though they were the best of friends, and soon Hadrian was preening under her admiration and promising her a lavish gift as soon as her child was born.
Let it come easily, Sabina thought, making a little prayer to the goddess of childbirth. Everything seemed to be going well so far—the voyage from Rome to Londinium hadn’t bothered Faustina or her swelling belly a jot. It was Titus who groaned and heaved over the trireme’s railing when they made the crossing, while Sabina stood at the prow with her sister, the wind blowing their cloaks flat over her own narrow form and Faustina’s rounding one, as they squinted over the banks of oars to see who would catch first sight of mysterious, mist-wrapped Britannia.
To be traveling again—Sabina’s whole mood felt lighter, the moment she stepped down from the trireme and smelled cool, mossy air that decidedly wasn’t Rome. Even traveling in the enormous entourage of slaves and chamberlains and courtiers that Hadrian felt appropriate to an empress’s station, she felt light enough to fly. Even in her husband’s company.
“Caesar,” Faustina was saying, beaming admiration like a lighthouse. “I do hope you have devoted some time in all this traveling to your poetry? I much admired the mourning hymns you wrote for Empress Plotina—”
“Perhaps I should write some verses for you,” Hadrian said, tucking Faustina’s hand into his arm. “Surely eyes as lovely as yours have inspired rhymes by the dozen. Tell me . . .”
“I believe,” Titus murmured, watching Hadrian escort Faustina to her dining couch, “that your husband is flirting with my wife.”
“He may not care for women in his bed, but he does like their flattery.” Sabina watched her sister flutter and coo. “And he always thought Faustina would make a better empress than me. In which he’s quite correct—any time I have to think ‘How would an empress behave?’ I just think, ‘How would my little sister do it?’ Gods know what I shall do when she’s not close enough to ask. Couldn’t you both just stay here in Britannia with me?”
“In all this mud?” Titus shuddered. “Give me a marble rostra and a brick forum over a glorious vista of forest, any day.” He led Sabina after Hadrian and Faustina. “Surely you’ll be back in Rome soon?”
“Who knows where Hadrian will want to go after Britannia? Though of course, he may not take me with him.” Sabina couldn’t help a slight frown. An empress’s entourage complicated her husband’s journeying considerably—Hadrian had already had to send Vix and a party of stewards and guards north, just to prepare for their arrival in Vindolanda in ten days’ time. If Hadrian decided to send her back to Rome when he continued on . . .
Well, at least she had this time in Britannia. The provincial governor had lent his large and gracious domus for the Emperor’s personal use, clearly anxious to prove that civilization thrived even on the edge of the Empire—the couches were draped in silver wolf pelts; a platter of sumptuous local oysters was being ushered out; the slaves were all matched redheads in embroidered linen. One, a handsome page boy with a silver wine decanter, stood in the far corner tittering softly with the lute player, and to Sabina’s amusement, he had to be nudged to fill the wine cups as the guests settled themselves. Hadrian gave the boy a glance, just to show that he had noticed. He noticed everything.
“Massilia!” Faustina was exclaiming. “Goodness, I cannot imagine. In Rome we all heard of your generosity in passing out donatives. And there was something about a wall, wasn’t there, when Caesar toured the northern border in Germania?”
“Yes.” Hadrian smiled, tossing an oyster shell to the mosaics. “You will see more walls soon enough—one of my many plans, for both Germania and Britannia.”
Titus smiled from his couch, and Hadrian’s eyes fixed on him with a sudden sharpening of attention.
“Do you laugh, Titus Aurelius?”
Sabina saw a sudden flash of worry cross her sister’s face. But Titus was entirely placid, returning the Emperor’s heavy-lidded gaze with a cheerful smile, as though he had never spent months in one of Hadrian’s cells under threat of death. “Why, yes, Caesar. I laugh at myself—if I were ever so unfortunate as to find myself at the northern edge of Germania, I would never stay long enough to build a wall. But I’m a dull, plodding sort of fellow with no imagination or ambition.”
“Are you.” Hadrian’s voice did not make it a question. “Sometimes I wonder.”
“Oh, look,” Sabina said brightly. “More oysters. And that dish with sow’s udders that you’re so fond of, Caesar. I ordered it especially to please you.”
Hadrian’s thoughtful gaze rested a moment longer on Titus, but at last his eyes shifted. “Thank you, Vibia Sabina. Most thoughtful.”
“In my day,” a deep voice rumbled from Titus’s far side, and Sabina knew without looking that it was Lucius Julius Ursus Servianus because Servianus prefaced most of his statements with In my day. “In my day, one did not eat so richly, even at an Imperial table.” Servianus shook his head: reputedly the most virtuous man in Rome, Imperial brother-in-law thanks to a long marriage with Hadrian’s colorless and little-liked elder sister, and such a vision of silvered wisdom in his old-fashioned synthesis that Sabina could not imagine he had ever been young. “It is such indulgence that ruins our Empire,” Servianus concluded, and gave a sniff at the dish of pheasant, sow’s udders, and ham in a pastry crust that had just been laid before the Emperor.
“Ham in a pastry crust is ruining the Empire?” Sabina couldn’t help saying. “Goodness.”
“No, it is indulgence that will be our ruin! Bread and vinegar, that would do us better. And serious discussion, not gossip and poetry.” Servianus cast a disapproving glance at Faustina, who was feeding tidbits to Hadrian’s hounds and listening admiringly to the verses the Emperor had composed when his favorite horse died. Better mourning verses, Sabina thought, than the ones he’d composed for the old Empress’s funeral. “The succession has not yet been settled; is that not more important than building walls? I have spoken with the Emperor many times about young Pedanius Fuscus, such a promising boy, yet the Emperor has not yet confirmed him as heir—”
“And why should I do so?” Hadrian interrupted, sounding much cooler than when he had addressed Faustina. “Because he is your grandson?”
“Because he is your great-nephew, Caesar.” Servianus sounded reproachful. “He carries the blood imperial!”
Hadrian snorted. “The blood imperial is no guarantor of genius.” The red-haired page boy whispering behind them with the lute player had let out a sudden titter at some murmured joke, and Hadrian sent a sharp glance. “Cease that, boy!” The page subsided.
Servianus gave a great harrumph. Everyone in Rome knew that he prided himself on speaking his mind, even to their feared and mercurial emperor. Many admired him for that, even if they found him tiresome. Sabina just found him a fool. You don’t speak your mind to the Emperor because you lack fear, she thought, looking on as her white-bearded guest prepared to pontificate. You speak your mind because you think being the Imperial brother-in-law is all the shield you need. And someday, Hadrian will teach you differently.
“Emperor Augustus,” Servianus said ponderously, “adopted the young men of his own family as sons as well as heirs, training them in his image—”
“Yes,” Faustina murmured. “And didn’t that work out well.”
Hadrian was looking irked, Sabina saw. Everyone else kept silent, but Servianus went blathering on. Shut up, you old idiot.
“If you would adopt young Pedanius Fuscus, Caesar, you would discover for yourself his worth. High spirited, healthy—”
“I will give the matter of an heir my attention,” Hadrian snapped. “In due course.”
The pretty page boy in the corner whistled softly. Not at them, Sabina noted—at a slave girl who had silently entered to refill the water jug. To a slave boy, all this Imperial drama is nothing more than background noise. But Hadrian heard the whistle and gave the boy another glance as Imperial secretary Suetonius came to the couch with a murmur. “Forgive me, Caesar, a dispatch from Rome . . .”
Hadrian broke the seal in a sharp movement, his bad mood expanding like a storm cloud, billowing almost visibly through the triclinium. Servianus wagged his head sadly. “In my day—”
“Even in your day,” Sabina said, “surely it was no courteous thing to pester one’s Emperor with trivia.”
“The matter of an Imperial heir is not trivia, Lady. A woman’s understanding—”
“I said the matter would be settled when I wish it settled.” Hadrian held out his cup to one side. “Wine.”
The red-haired page was still ogling the slave girl with her water jug.
“Wine!” the Emperor barked, and the boy looked startled. He scurried to the couch with another nervous titter. Don’t laugh, Sabina had time to think. No one laughs in Hadrian’s presence unless he’s telling the joke— But the thought was a mere flash, as Hadrian turned in a sudden motion and struck the boy. Not with a closed fist, but with the sharp stylus he had used to break the seal on Suetonius’s dispatch.
The slave screamed. The sound tore through the triclinium, cutting off Servianus’s droning and the soft rustle of the fans. Sabina saw blood splash, bright and shocking against the tiles. The boy doubled over, his scream dying off into a whimper. Sabina’s mind was still frozen on the sight of the red droplets falling so vividly on the mosaic tiles, but she found herself moving, off her couch and past Suetonius, who clutched his scrolls gray-faced. Sabina reached the slave boy, crouched beside him. “Let me see—” And she wished she could unsee, because his eye was ruined and blind, oozing onto his cheek. The other eye fixed with dulled horror on the Emperor, and Sabina felt the same horror on her own face when she looked at her husband.
Hadrian stared down at the moaning slave boy, and Sabina saw none of his usual masks. Just a strange blank excitement, and something in the bright gaze that heaved and shuddered like a subterranean creature trying to be born. She had seen the same look on his face four years ago, when he ordered Vix to bring him four heads—and on a few other occasions since then, which she mostly preferred not to think about.
The Emperor gave a small shiver and then he blinked, and as quickly as that, it was gone. He stretched out a hand in a curiously precise movement and dropped the bloodied stylus. Everyone watched it fall, and then Faustina’s hands flew to her mouth with a small sound of nausea and the thickened silence broke.
“You have an irritating laugh, young man,” Hadrian told the slave in an absent voice, “but I suppose it didn’t warrant blinding. What may I give you in compensation?”
“My eye,” the boy whimpered behind the wad of cloth Sabina was holding to his bleeding socket. “My eye—”
“You want your eye back? That, I’m afraid, is beyond even an emperor’s powers.” Hadrian snapped his fingers for Suetonius; he had to snap twice before the stunned secretary looked up. “Take him away.”
Sabina spoke without thinking. “Is that all?”
“Should there be more?” Hadrian looked puzzled. “I suppose his value has been decreased. I shall see that the governor is compensated for the damage of his property.”
The slave was led away, still hunched over and whimpering. He was perhaps sixteen, Sabina thought, and anger roiled low in her stomach. A rise of outrage that utterly swamped caution.
“Titus,” Sabina said, rising. “My sister appears to be feeling ill. Why don’t you escort her out? Servianus, perhaps you will accompany them.”
Servianus, too white-faced and appalled to say anything about how in his day no one blinded their slaves at dinner, went shuffling toward the doors. Titus needed no urging to put his arm around Faustina, who looked as though she were about to vomit. He sent a look of dire warning over her bowed head to Sabina, but she ignored it. “Leave us,” she said crisply to the rest of the petrified slaves.
Sabina waited until the Praetorians closed the doors, and then she turned to her husband, folding her arms across her breasts and surveying him. He was chewing on a handful of grapes, tossing every other one to the dog at his feet. “Do you intend to scold me, Vibia Sabina?” he said in the mild tone that usually meant trouble.
Only she didn’t care, just now, if it meant trouble or not. Four years dancing about his moods, wearing purple and being silent—enough.
“You idiot,” she said.
Hadrian’s head snapped up like a darting snake, the remaining grapes spilling from his hand to the floor. “Pardon me?”
“Yes, yes, you’re very frightening,” she said. “What are you going to do, put out my eye, too? I don’t think you want a Cyclops for an Empress.”
“I could take your tongue.” Hadrian snapped his fingers at the dog at his feet; she rose with tail wagging, and he caressed the graying ears. “A silent Empress would be most desirable.”
Kate Quinn is a native of Southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in classical voice. A lifelong history buff, she first got hooked on ancient Rome while watching I, Claudius at the age of eight. Her first three novels, Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, and Empress of the Seven Hills, have been translated into multiple languages. She is also the author of two novels about the Borgia family, The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose. Kate lives in Maryland with her husband and is currently at work on her next novel.
See all customer reviews
Kate Quinn once again delivers a wonderful, gripping story that pulls you in right away. If you loved the other books in this series you won't be disappointed. Get it, read it, love it!
I have read all of Kate Quinns novels however, this one is the Best! I truly enjoy her writing, she puts you in Rome, in the moment. Keep it up Kate and keep the books coming. Kudos to you for this novel.
Copy received from Historical Fiction Virtual Book tours for an honest review. First, my review is NOT going to do "Lady of the Eternal City" by Kate Quinn justice. This was A-M-ZING. I was instantly captivated by Sabina, Hadrian and Vix! This might not be new to her faithful readers and fans but I'm often intimated by Historical Fiction, especially areas of fiction I am not familiar with. So when I start a book about ancient Rome I feel very lost or thought I would. The imagery and details are fantastic. I loved the way Quinn created the tension between Vix and Sabina even before they exchanged a word. I loved the little details that showed us how the characters were truly feeling even if their outward appearances dictated something different. How could they really express their thoughts? The ominous presence of Hadrian was terrifying yet worthy of respect. Hadrian alone is a terribly complex, multi-layered character. I hated and admired him in one sentence! Because I'm not a historian I don't know how much creative license Quinn took with the time period. Vix and Sabina but I definitely loved her version of it and the characters. I was angry at myself for not having read the previous books in the series earlier. Nonetheless, new comers like me will be instantly hooked on Quinn's writing and storytelling and her loyal fans will undoubtedly stand up and applaud. Even though I hadn't read the previous books in the series I was having a serious case of book hang over. My only solice is that I have "Mistress of Rome" next to my bed stand ready to read until Quinn's next book. Fantastic reading, wonderful characters, Rome like I never thought of before!
Just wonderful A great end to a great book series
I liked the part about the lion hunt and how the emperor didn't get too badly hurt and was scolding Antonius for jumping in and almost getting himself hurt.
This is one of those books that makes we wish this rating system allowed a multiplier for degree of difficulty, like in Olympic diving. What Kate Quinn has pulled off here is nothing short of astonishing. Oftentimes it is a pitfall for a novelist to try to do too much. But this epic conclusion to the Empress of Rome series includes everything a reader could ask for: several points of view from a diverse range of male and female characters, all so well-developed you could chat them up comfortably in their villas if only the book included a time machine; thrilling combat; the joys and heartbreak of coming of age; two improbable romances that develop not just credibly but seemingly (from hindsight) inevitably; and even a murder mystery, one of the biggest of the ancient world. Quinn orchestrates the many moving parts with precision and depth to a really satisfying conclusion that not only offered surprises in the plot, but surprises in myself as a reader. For she manages to transform a character I and most other readers loathed in the previous volume - the Emperor Hadrian - into a man we not only understand but perhaps even can sympathize with. It's a masterful character arc that complements the other characters perfectly, and - particularly if you've read the previous entries in the series - you'll miss them all when you finish.