The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(4)

“Why do you think all the houses here have such stout doors?” I snorted. “They’d hide in their wine cellars and drink until the danger had passed.”

After a very short while, a gentle snore drifted from Elka’s lips. I closed my own eyes and tried to relax, but it wasn’t as easy for me—or for most people, really—as it seemed to be for her. Elka was the only person I knew who could doze on a stone bench in an arena full of screaming multitudes and wake moments later, refreshed and ready for her bout. I envied her blithe nature sometimes.

My mind rebelled against such blissful oblivion and, instead, mulled over the nature of the people we worked our bodies so hard to entertain. My comment to Elka had been glib and self-congratulatory, of course, and we both knew it. Any tribe of men had its share of cowards, I thought. Rome was simply fortunate enough to have an army and soldiers to do its fighting for it—with a brilliant general at its head: Gaius Julius Caesar.

But I knew well that there were those in Rome who had already declared war on Caesar. A secret war, waged by power-hungry men like Cai’s father. Like Pontius Aquila. Men who made dark bargains with dangerous factions and darker gods, and who would stop at nothing to bring Rome’s conquering hero to his knees. And I didn’t think we’d seen the last of them.

It was an uncomfortable thought that sometimes kept me awake long into the night, never mind on the massage bench. I’d confided my worries to Sorcha on one or two occasions, but my sister seemed convinced that Aquila was no longer a threat, not to us or to the Ludus Achillea or to Caesar. I fervently hoped she was right. Certainly, the Sons of Dis had troubled us no more since we’d retaken the ludus. And, of course, Senator Varro lay cold and moldering on a marble slab in the Varro family vault, a permanent resident of Rome’s finest necropolis.

Cai had seen to it that he’d been interred alongside his beloved wife in a quiet ceremony. Dignified, honorable, with most of the mourners never really knowing the true circumstances of Decimus Fulvius Varro’s demise. They only knew that his son, Caius Antonius Varro, had been responsible—and had been conspicuously absent from the rites as a result. Of course, had he attended, they would have very likely buried him in the ground that day too.

“Too hard?” the masseuse asked suddenly, easing up the pressure she’d been applying to a particularly stubborn spot on my left shoulder.

I shook my head no and felt her work her thumbs deeper into the spot. The tears seeping out from under my lashes had nothing to do with a muscle knot.

Caesar, of course, had learned the full truth about Senator Varro’s death. And his reaction to the situation had served to remind me that even the heroic service of a loyal officer in his legions was secondary to him when it came to the business of politics. It was a hard lesson for me, but a much harder one for Cai. The memory of that day washed over me as I lay on the bench, almost as if it had been stored in the muscles the masseuse focused on, working loose the knots there and setting the memories free.

* * *

A few months after we had triumphed over Pontius Aquila and regained the Ludus Achillea, Caesar had returned to Rome with victories of his own. There’d been a decisive battle in Hispania at a place called Munda—one that Cai, had he still been with Caesar on the campaign, would have doubtless fought in—waged against Caesar’s own folk. Being Caesar, of course, he won. But also, being Caesar, that didn’t necessarily mean his success would be met with laurels and lavish praise upon his return.

I suppose, then, it shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise that the great general—once again appointed dictator—might be in some incarnation of a foul mood on the day when I received a summons to appear before him at his estate on the west bank of the Tiber. He’d once again taken up residence there and was presumably busy reacquainting himself with his friends in Rome and his wife, Calpurnia.

After the messenger arrived at the ludus with the imperative that I was to present myself to Caesar that very afternoon, I barely had time to change out of my practice gear and make myself presentable before being bundled into the enclosed carriage and driven down the Via Clodia, south toward Rome. As we approached the city, I drew aside the curtains on the carriage window, just enough to be able to see the sunlight sparkling off the red-tiled roofs and gleaming marble walls of the buildings seemingly piled one upon the other up the sides of the seven hills. It was a sight that always filled me with conflicting emotions. In the same way that Caesar himself did. I’d spent a good deal of my life growing up wishing a fate worse than death upon the man responsible—I’d always thought, at least—for the death of my sister. I still blamed him for a lot of other things, but that one truth of my childhood had proven false. Her loss, yes. But not her death. And I’d found her again. In the days since, we’d become more than sisters. A team. A force to be reckoned with. Everything, I’d thought, was finally going so well. With the ludus, my friends, Cai . . .

The carriage turned west, toward the stone bridge that spanned the River Tiber, and I pulled the curtains shut again, leaning back on the cushioned seat and trying not to wonder what it was that Caesar had in store for me. When the driver slowed to a stop in front of the sweeping front terrace that graced the entrance to Caesar’s villa and opened the door to let me out, I discovered that Cai had been summoned too.

We met in the fragrant main courtyard of the sprawling villa and barely had time to greet each other before one of Caesar’s praetorian guards was marching us through the airy, light-filled corridors on our way to Caesar’s scriptorium.

Lesley Livingston's Books