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Authors: Eva Scott

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BOOK: Barbarian Bride
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“Father.” Lucius stepped back quickly, aware of the many curious eyes upon them. “You requested my presence.”

“And here you are. Gentlemen, we will resume our discussion this evening. Please attend dinner at my humble abode. I will expect you all at sunset.” With a nod of his head, Decimus dismissed his retinue and continued across the threshold. “Come with me,” he said. “I have a proposition for you I think you will find agreeable.” He placed his arm about Lucius’ shoulder guiding him back inside the now empty Senate.

The Senate was an elegant building, a dome arched overhead with rows of simple marble benches cascading towards a circular floor where speakers could say their piece. Stately columns flanked the mosaic floor, the only light tumbling in through the high windows.

“Sit down.” Decimus waved Lucius towards the lowest tier of marble seating while he remained standing. He waited until Lucius was settled before beginning to pace slowly up and down. “I have been considering your request.”

Lucius’ head snapped up with surprise. His heart began to beat faster.
His father had changed his mind!

“While I do not agree with offering my patronage to commercial undertakings such as a
luda
, I believe I can see a way forward in this situation which may benefit us both,” he said with a curl of his lip. A proper Roman nobleman did not overtly partake in trade or commerce. Yet to create the wealth needed to maintain a lofty social position many took to conducting their business secretly, behind closed doors, a duplicity he suspected his father indulged in.

“If you are willing to give up this wandering life of yours, give up the frontier and the crass mode of living you currently employ, I will be willing bestow my patronage upon your gladiator school.” Decimus stopped pacing and turned to face Lucius, standing in a beam of sunlight like some demi-god descended from the heavens. His toga was draped elegantly over one arm, the other outstretched with his palm up as if offering a benediction.

Lucius reeled at his father’s proposal, the words dropping like stones into his skull. “If I gave up my trade, my life, what would you have me do?” There had to be more to Decimus’ plan. Merely having him back in Rome would not be enough.

“I would have you take part in public life of course. It’s what you were born to do. There is a position of magistrate I think you’ll be well suited for.”

“And should I refuse the role and go about my own business?” Lucius probed for caveats. There was no such thing a straight deal where Decimus was concerned. He’d been trying to lure Lucius back to Rome for years and now he’d found the bait he needed. Klara! Lucius had to hand it to him; he was a clever old fox. But that didn’t mean Lucius was going to let him have it all his own way.

Decimus folded his arms. A smile played upon his lips, the kind of smile a crocodile might wear right before it launched its attack. “Returning to Rome is only the first part of the deal. The second part requires you to take up a respectable position in Roman society befitting your rank. And the third part—”

“There’s a third part!” The blood drained from Lucius head and he closed his eyes. His fingers gripped the edge of the marble seat as he braced himself. No doubt Decimus was about to reveal the thing he wanted the most, which is why he left it until last.

“I am not a fool Lucius. I know you have not taken a sudden interest in blood sports. Especially female blood sports. I am well aware a woman lies at the bottom of all this distasteful mess. Let us speak frankly, shall we?” Decimus paused. Lucius acknowledged his words with a brief nod of his head. “Good. I want you here in Rome to support me in my political career as well you know. You want your young
lady
to live. You do as I ask, become a magistrate, settle down and marry and I will ensure your lover lives. I can’t do better than that Lucius.”

Lucius blinked at the stunning turn of events, trying to take it in and make sense of it all. “So you will save Klara from the
luda
and I can marry if I agree to become a magistrate and stay here in Rome?” he asked cautiously. His life of freedom was a lot to give up but if it meant he could live out his days with Klara then he’d gladly sacrifice the frontier for the stuffy confines of Roman society. How Klara would fare might be a challenge, yet it was a better fate than death. At least they would have each other.

“Of course you may marry. I shall arrange a good match for you. I have several candidates picked out already. Once you are properly settled we will…” Decimus began pacing again, clearly excited at the thought he was about to get what he’d wanted for so long.

“Wait!” Lucius held up his hand. “The only woman I want to marry is Klara. I want no other.” He rose to his feet, his fists clenched at his sides. “I am prepared to give up my lucrative trade, to give up my freedom. I am prepared to live here in Rome and do as you ask, but marry some insipid woman of your choice is going too far.”

“Too far?” Decimus spun around to face Lucius, his face reddening with anger. “How dare you challenge my right to instruct you as I see fit. May I remind you I am
pater familias
and therefore have the full weight of Roman law behind me? I can have you killed for disobedience and insolence. For too long I have let you and your sister run wild. Enough! Enough I say!” He shouted the last words and they echoed off the walls of the Senate, resounding again and again. His eyes narrowed to darkened slits and his lips drew back in a snarl. “If you do not do as I say I will ensure your whore dies before she ever reaches the arena. Do I make myself clear?” He turned and stalked out of the room, not waiting for a response.

Lucius stood staring after him for a long painful moment. His heart had just been cut out of his chest and the wound salted. Life as he’d experienced it was now over. His legs suddenly felt weak and he sat back down. Cradling his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees, he frantically searched for a way out of his predicament. If he refused to do what his father asked he faced whatever punishment his father saw fit. To defy his father would break his mother’s heart. Decimus had been very clear defiance would also mean death to Klara. Living would be impossible if he knew he’d been responsible for her death. Even though they could not be together at least she’d be alive.

No matter how many times he went over the situation, the outcome was the same. He would have to do as his father asked. Raising his head he watched the dust motes play in the ray of sunshine filtering in through the great doors. He should have ridden straight out to find Hetal. Perhaps he’d have failed to make the purchase price, perhaps Klara would have died before he’d been able to return but at least he would have had choices, a sense of mastery of his own destiny. His father’s solution was akin to being sold into slavery.

Numb, Lucius remained sitting until the sun had passed overhead and the Senate chamber had grown cold. Rising stiffly, he began the long walk back home.

Chapter 17

Despite the overhanging shade cloth and the presence of slaves wielding large fans, the afternoon heat pressed down upon Lucius. The warmth of the day had done nothing to keep the spectators away. The Coliseum was filled to the brim with humanity, all intent on an afternoon of entertainment and bloodshed. As a reluctant guest of his father Lucius had no choice but to sit and watch the games, feigning interest in the conversation swirling about him. Roman politics had never held any fascination for him. Three days had passed since his father’s ‘proposal’—blackmail more like. While Lucius hadn’t formally agreed, he suspected Decimus knew his answer would be yes. It could be nothing else, given the circumstances. Narrowing his eyes against the glare he focused on a patch of blood on the other side of the arena, careful not to make eye contact with any other guests.

“I’m so bored!” Alexandra whispered in his ear. “Aren’t you? I hate these games. Seeing innocent people being slaughtered is not my idea of fun.” She sat next to him, elegantly attired with her hair piled on top of her head in a riot of curls. Her betrothed, Gaius Hirtius Buteo, sat on the other side of her. A corpulent and elderly man clearly enamoured of his bride-to-be if the man’s leering countenance was anything to go by.

“Pick something or someone to stare at, grit your teeth and get through the afternoon. It can’t go on forever,” he whispered back.

Alex sighed dramatically. “It feels like forever.”

“What feels like forever, my dear?” Gaius leaned forward in his chair as far as his rotund stomach would allow.

“The time I must wait until we are married.” Alex amazed Lucius at how quickly she could switch from annoying little sister to simpering bride-to-be. He knew how she felt about her upcoming nuptials. She found herself in a similar predicament to his own – every response, every utterance they made within their father’s circle of influence was one of self preservation and survival. Given the choice, he’d rather take his chances out on the plains with the so-called ‘barbarians’.

“Do we know who is fighting today?” Claudia, his step-mother, sat at the front of the podium. “I do hope that Carpathian gladiator is scheduled. He is gorgeous.” The other women giggled in response. No doubt they all lusted after the poor man who would be lucky to see old age.

“I have asked for him, my good wife, as I know how much you enjoy his
bouts
.” Decimus allowed himself a chuckle at his own joke. “I do hope the program is to your liking. Never having sponsored one of these things before I’m unsure of what pleases the crowd.”

Alex rolled her eyes behind her father’s back and shot Lucius a grin. They both knew he’d spent days pouring over the program. Most of the other senators indulged in the practice of hosting games; a fact which his father had shown great disdain for in the past. Now the eyes of Rome were upon Decimus as he attempted his first event and Lucius had no doubts the day, while somewhat modest by some standards, would be action packed and a huge success with the plebeian class. Lucius let his mind drift along with the chatter about him.

He wondered where Klara was right at that moment. Probably training hard at the
luda
. Alex had told him she was now kept in a cell beneath the Coliseum for causing a ruckus. If she was there now she would be able to hear the cheers of the crowd. What went through a person’s mind as they waited, knowing one day they would stand before thousands and face death? He couldn’t imagine. She didn’t know about Decimus’ plan to bind Lucius to him in return for her freedom. He didn’t know how to tell her. Once he agreed formally to the proposal what future they may have had together would burn away like a morning mist. All he had to cling to was the belief she would be alive out there, somewhere in the world.

Lost in his reverie, he was startled by the sound of trumpets blaring as the Coliseum orchestra heralded the beginning of the day’s games. Suddenly Alex gripped his arm, her fingers digging into his flesh. “What’s wrong?” he asked startled back to the present.

“Look!” she said, keeping her voice low so as not to attract attention.

Lucius sat forward, craning his neck to see around his stepmother’s enormous wig. Then he saw her—Klara—striding out on to the arena floor, a sword gripped in one hand and a shield strapped to her other arm. His throat constricted to the point where he could barely breathe and a sharp pain shot through his chest. Gripping the arms of his chair, he eased himself back. Decimus would be on the lookout for any reaction and he was determined not to give him the satisfaction.

Alex entwined her fingers with his, her grasp no gentler than earlier, and he threw her a distracted smile of thanks. At least he wasn’t alone like Klara down there below him. The two gladiatrices began to circle, crouching like tigresses. There was strength and grace in every line of Klara’s body and he ached to touch her. Her dark tresses were caught up under her helmet. Her body armour, a corset of boiled leather, clung to her frame and he prayed to whichever god might be listening it was sturdy enough to withstand solid attack.

Klara struck first and next to him Alex gasped and tightened her hold on his hand. The gladiatrices exchanged blows, each one ringing out across the arena to the cheers of the crowd who were only getting warmed up. Time seemed to slow as the fight went on. Lucius’ head pounded with the tension. She could not die here, in front of him, not now they were so close to gaining her freedom.

“Somehow it’s all so very different when it’s someone you know,” murmured Alex. “I’ve never cared before. I can’t imagine how you can stand sitting there.”

“Neither can I,” he muttered between clenched teeth. Anger had begun to brew somewhere deep in his belly. Decimus had selected Klara to fight. He must suspect, if not know, who she was and what she meant to him. Nothing escaped his father whose spies and informants crisscrossed the city’s classes from the poorest artesian to the richest patrician noble. Her appearance today was designed to send him a message—if he did not do as his father wanted then Klara’s life was easily forfeited. A timely reminder.

Suddenly Klara stumbled, losing her footing on the sandy surface of the Coliseum. As she slipped backwards her opponent advanced, taking the advantage to rain a series of blows upon her. Klara held her shield high to deflect the strikes which reverberated around the arena to the shrill cries of the audience. Every attempt she made to rise was set back by the next blow. She couldn’t find her feet. Lucius held his breath, the urge to yell advice warring with the need for self control. Decimus turned briefly, a tight malicious smile his only expression. He definitely knew! If Lucius harboured any doubt about his father’s intentions they were wiped out with that one look. It was no accident Klara fought today and her opponent was no doubt carefully selected for her level of skill.

A cry went up from the arena floor and the crowd rose on their feet, feverishly screaming. Lucius leaped up out of his seat, no longer caring who saw his concern. His blood ran cold at the scene playing out below. Klara’s weapon had been knocked away and she lay helpless beneath the sword point of the other gladiatrix. Blood had been scented by the crowd and they began to chant “
Iugula!”
, “Kill!”

BOOK: Barbarian Bride
5.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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