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Authors: Eva Scott

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BOOK: Barbarian Bride
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“I did nothing, Father, simply listened.”

“Exactly! And that’s the key to being a good politician. Let the people think you care by listening to their woes and opinions. They are often the same thing.” Decimus laughed at his joke, the sound bouncing off the walls in the quiet of the night.

Lucius noted the streets were almost deserted. Smart Romans did not venture out after sunset. Too much crime abounded in a city where crushing poverty nestled under the skirts of affluence. The Senator dismissed the danger. He preferred to think of himself as a man of the people and walked on foot everywhere he went. Of course, it was a ploy to win popularity—the man did not leave his house without at least four armed guards. Lucius smiled in the darkness as the sound of six pairs of sandals slapped along the cobblestone streets. Yes, a man of the people who was nevertheless afraid of them.

Lucius liked Rome by night. The cool air did much to take away the pungent smell of so much humanity pressed together. The velvety darkness hid the grime giving an elegant grace to the public buildings they passed. Decimus chatted on, not expecting a response and Lucius did not give him one, content to enjoy the last of the evening. Klara was safe in her new home. The thought gave him great comfort and that was enough for now.

Decimus suddenly clutched his stomach, and with a strangled cry of pain fell to his knees.

“Father! What happened? Are you sick?” Lucius grabbed his father’s shoulders to prevent him falling forward and it took a heartbeat to realise Decimus had not been taken ill. Blood seeped through the front of his toga, his hands clutching his stomach where the tip of a spear was clearly visible. Time suspended as Decimus looked up beseechingly into Lucius’ eyes before the guard who had cruelly stabbed him in the back pulled the spear free. Decimus toppled forward, unconscious.

Lucius held his father for a moment trying to fathom what had just happened. Then he rose to his feet, his hands and toga covered with Decimus’ blood. The guards had turned on each other. Two against two. One of the guards nimbly prevented a spear slicing Lucius in two as he stood in the middle of the chaos. They fought viciously over the Senator’s prone figure. Lucius shook his head in an effort to think clearly. Both he and his father were defenceless; neither carried a weapon. Decimus needed to be moved to safety. Dodging the fighting men as best he could, Lucius picked his father up and stumbled to the side of the road. As he lay Decimus down he noted one of the traitorous guards was dead and the other fully occupied in combat. Turning his attention back to the Senator, he lowered his ear to his chest. No heart sounded its beat. No breath grazed Decimus’ lips.

He sat back on his haunches; grief pouring through him at the knowledge his father was dead. Tears stole down his cheeks as he gently closed his father’s sightless eyes. Who would dare to attack the Senator so openly? While Decimus had many enemies he also had powerful friends. Only a fool would arrange his murder in such an obvious manner. Lucius may not have always liked the Senator but he loved his father as only a son could. So lost in grief he did not notice one of the guards standing over him at first.

“Sir?” The guard’s breath came heavily. “We have killed them both.”

He looked up at the man and nodded. “Thank you. The Senator has been killed. Help me carry him to his home.”

Both guards hurried over to lift Decimus as carefully as they could. Lucius followed as they walked the short distance to the villa. They left the bodies of the dead guards in the street for the dogs. Tomorrow Lucius would go to the Senate and demand an investigation into who murdered his father. But for now he had to break the news to his step-mother, Claudia.

Claudia came running at the commotion they made entering the house. An elderly house slave set up wailing at the sight of her master’s body. The guards carried the Senator to a couch in an ante room, depositing him with great tenderness for such burly men. Claudia wept over her husband’s body, her back to Lucius. She didn’t acknowledge his presence and he held back to give her a moment to get over the shock.

“You may go,” Lucius instructed the guards as they stood awkwardly to one side, embarrassment clearly etched on their faces. Claudia sobbed until the door closed behind the guards then she swirled about, a different kind of expression on her face than Lucius had expected.

“You!” she hissed. “Why aren’t you dead?”

“Two of the house guard turned on us unexpectedly. There was nothing I could do. They attacked me too and if it wasn’t for the loyal action of—”

“You were supposed to die too!” She cried. “Now you have ruined everything!” Claudia cut him off full of impatient fury.

“What…what do you mean?” Lucius struggled to follow. One minute she was the grieving widow and the next some sort of harridan straight from Hades.

She advanced on him, one menacing finger pointing at his heart. “I cannot inherit Decimus’ wealth while
you
live and breathe. I cannot be free to follow my own course while
you
stand in my way. You should have had the good grace to die quickly like your father. Now I will have to find another way to deal with you.” Her eyes were wild and black like her heart. Claudia’s hair, so perfectly arranged on all occasions, looked like a bird had nested in it. Her chest heaved with an emotion Lucius was quite certain wasn’t grief.

Just as quickly as she raged, her temper passed leaving an unsettlingly calm. She cocked her head to one side and smiled at him. “There you stand, dutiful son of Decimus Aurelius.
Illegitimate
son.”

“My father recognised his paternity as you well know. I am legitimate in the eyes of Roman law.” He spoke stiffly, wishing with all his might for a weapon. While he had no desire to harm a woman, Claudia’s behaviour alarmed him. He braced himself for her attack.

She laughed. “Yes, all of Rome knows I can’t give him a son. But did he honour me, the niece of the Emperor? Oh no, he thinks he can keep your whore of a mother in luxury and I will accept her whelp upon his whim. I am the laughing stock of society. How dare he humiliate me so?”

“I’m sure he meant no such offence.”

“Of course he did. All men do. I’m tired of being owned by a man not worthy to wash my feet. I should be married to a leader of men not an ageing orator. How lucky you showed up with a price on your head. Two birds with one stone, isn’t that what the Greeks say?”

Lucius swallowed hard as she drew nearer. He had always thought her interest in the price upon his head nothing more than another example of her vicious nature. Never would he have believed her capable of using his situation to arrange his father’s murder. She stopped in front of him. Her eyes alight with madness.

“It doesn’t matter. I forgive you for your failure. There is another way and you can help me.”

“Another way?” he repeated in confusion. What on earth was she talking about? Another way to what?

“Guards!” She screamed startling him with her ferocity.

The door flew open and several household guards plunged into the room.

“Seize him! He has just confessed to murdering his father.” She pointed at the blood covering Lucius’ toga and he realised how neatly he’d fallen into her trap. The guards hesitated. One of them who had been present at the attack spoke.

“But my lady, he didn’t kill the Senator. We were there and—” He never finished his statement as she cut in over the top of him screaming, with her hands balled against her thighs, a terrifying image of rage and grief.

“He killed him! He murdered my husband. I want justice.”

Still the guards hesitated. Lucius seized the moment and ducked between the unsuspecting guards, running through the house and out the front door, running for his very life. He heard the guard give a surprised yell behind him but did not stop to look back. Now he knew the truth. Neither he, his sister nor his mother was safe. They had to flee Rome immediately. Who would believe the testimony of a slave-guard over that of the niece of the Emperor? If he was captured while covered in Decimus’ blood there would be no hope for him.

He ran hard, his lungs burning with the effort until he reached his mother’s villa. Hoping the confusion Claudia had caused would be enough to slow down a search for him he risked alerting Olivia and Alex. He couldn’t save himself and not them.

The elderly door keeper swung open the peep hole, grumbling about the hour, until he saw Lucius standing on the doorstep covered in blood. The old man quickly gave him entry, ushering him inside and checking to make sure no one was following.

“Keep a look out. I am being pursued,” he said quickly before hurrying into the house. “Mother! Alex! Wake up.” His booming voice roused not only his family but all the household slaves.

“Lucius! What is it? Do you know what hour this is?” Olivia appeared wrapped in a silk sheath, her face creased by sleep. She gasped when she saw him. “What’s happened? Are you hurt?”

“Not my blood. It’s Father’s.” His breath came in short bursts as urgency took hold. “Father has been murdered by Claudia. She’s intending to have me charged and I don’t think any of us are safe. Throw together what you need. We leave tonight.” He turned to his sister who stood pale and frightened behind him. “Alex, hurry. I will explain everything later. We have no time. This is the first place they’ll search for me.”

“But where will we go?” Alex asked, rooted to the spot by incomprehension and shock. He knew how she felt.

“Klara. We’ll go to Klara. No one knows where she is but me. You’ll be safe there until I can get us out of the city. Now hurry!”

The household delved into a frenzy of activity as Olivia and Alex dressed and threw together some belongings. The faithful household slaves did what they could to help. Olivia left instructions for them to keep the house running as if they had merely gone away for a holiday, not running for their lives. She also made provision to give them their freedom knowing full well they could not return, not when someone so close to the Emperor had a vendetta against them.

Lucius grabbed some clean clothes, his sword and some coin. There was no point carrying a great deal, it would only serve to slow them down or make them targets for thieves once they were on the road. Where would they go? He hadn’t given any thought to their destination beyond getting his mother and sister safely hidden at Klara’s apartment. Everything had happened so fast. His head pounded. How was he going to get them out of the city undetected? If he waited until morning the city authorities would be alerted and the gates would be watched. He took a deep breath to steady his heart. What was done was done. His job now was to make sure they all lived long enough to have a future.

***

Someone was pounding on the door. Klara sat up, bewildered with sleep. She scrabbled for her sword sheathed in its hilt. Pulling it free at the ready she crept to the door. There was no way of checking who was on the other side without opening the door and letting them in.

“Who is it and what do you want?” she called.

“Klara, it’s Lucius. Let us in. Hurry!”

She drew the bolt back and flung open the door. Her heart racing at the sound of his voice. Lucius, Alex and an older lady tumbled into the room out of breath and dishevelled.

“What’s going on?” Klara closed the door and secured it.

“Claudia, my step-mother, had my father murdered this evening on the way home from the banquet. The cunning woman thought she could pass it off as a crime committed by barbarian head hunters.”

“No!” Klara’s hand flew to her mouth in shock.

“I’m afraid she didn’t pay the guard off properly and there was a fight. I survived when I shouldn’t have,” he said grimly, dropping the bag he carried on the floor.

“What do you mean?” she couldn’t comprehend what he was telling her through the fog of sleep.

“She wanted to be free of a husband she felt was beneath her. Claudia wanted the coin and the estates free and clear. Hard to do when there is a son to inherit.”

“Are you hurt?” She rushed to his side, her hands reaching for him.

He chuckled at her concern. “I’m fine. But I won’t be for long if we don’t find a way to get out of the city. Claudia is stating I confessed to her that I am the murderer and insisting I be brought to justice. I don’t know how long we have.”

She hugged him then forgetting about the others in the room. Entwining her arms about his neck she kissed him ferociously. “I finally have you and someone wants to take you away from me. Well, that’s not going to happen today,” she said.

He held her tight in one long squeeze before releasing her. “This is my mother Olivia,” he said. “Alex you already know.”

Klara turned around to face the older woman. She was beautiful and Klara could see why the Senator had fallen in love with his slave girl and given her freedom. Nodding her head by way of respectful greeting, and really not knowing what to say to Lucius’ mother, she moved her attention to Alex.

Alex surged forward and gave her a bone crunching hug. “I am so glad we have you to shelter us,” she said. Tracks of her tears streaked her face and grief had etched lines around her mouth.

“Do not fear. You are safe here with me until we work out a plan.” She turned back to Lucius. “It seems we are always short of a plan these days. Any ideas?”

He let out a bark of laughter that held no joy. “As it happens, I do.”

Chapter 24

The noise of women softly crying was the only sound in the small room. Klara sat wrapped in awkwardness, with her back against the wall, watching as Alex comforted her mother. She had no appropriate words for them. The world of a gladiatrix, while a world of women, did not extend to comfort and gentle courtesies. She feared she had forgotten how. She was afraid her own mother would not recognise the person she had become.

Both women wept for Decimus Aurelius. Whatever else he may have been he was a father and a husband, of sorts. She understood how Alex might grieve for the loss of her father. Her own heart ached whenever she thought of Rugila. Olivia’s grief she failed to understand at all. Decimus had kept her as a slave. He may have fallen in love with her and given her freedom but it was a funny kind of freedom when Olivia had no independence from him, or any that Klara could tell. Could Olivia have loved Decimus too? She would never love her captor—of that she was certain!

BOOK: Barbarian Bride
8.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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