The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(5)

“Come,” he barked impatiently when we were announced. “Sit.”

Without looking up, he waved a hand at the low, backless chairs off to one side of the desk where he sat behind fortifications built of stacked tablets and scrolls, feverishly writing on a sheet of vellum. The stylus in his hand made a scratching noise across the surface of the scraped-thin sheepskin, and Caesar’s secretary—a portly, serious-faced man who was probably Macedonian, by the look of him—stood waiting to receive the missive from Caesar’s hand.

Together, Cai and I crossed the polished marble floor—me trying to make as little noise as possible—and sat. I glanced sideways at Cai, but his gaze was focused on the far wall in front of us, on a tapestry that hung above Caesar’s head, a scene of warring gods and goddesses. I vaguely remembered the tale as I’d been told it: a story of familial bloodshed in which the children of immortals rose up to dethrone their parents and make themselves gods. The central image of the tapestry was of Jupiter overthrowing his own Titan father and casting him into the underworld realm of Tartarus.

I folded my hands in my lap and waited, staring up at the divine conflict frozen forever in the woven patterns of the gleaming silken threads. An uncomfortable chill crawled across my skin as I was reminded of my own time spent in a place named after that horrid prison. Tartarus. Once we’d retaken the ludus, Sorcha had ordered the squat, ugly stone structure to be demolished. It was torn down and the stones repurposed, the dank subterranean cells filled in, and a garden planted there in its place.

She’d given me the black iron key, heavy and clawlike, when I’d asked her for it. When she wanted to know why, I could only answer, “Because I want to remember. I never want to forget any of the things that have happened to me. Any of the places I’ve been, or the things that I’ve done. No matter how horrible. That key is as much me as the oath lamp that you gave me and Nyx shattered. As real as my swords and as much a part of me, both broken and whole.”

My sister had tilted her head and looked at me for a long moment. Then, without another word, she laid the key across my palm and turned back to watch the yoked team of oxen strain and start forward, pulling the doors of Tartarus right off their hinges.

After that, I’d spent my days in a haze of tentative happiness, soaking in the small joys of long practice, dreamless sleep, good food and company, and the unfurling of the new small wings of my soul that would one day beat strong enough to carry me all the way to freedom. It had never even occurred to me I’d be making that flight alone.

Then the summons had come.

At first, I was elated. When he finally turned his attention on us where we sat patiently waiting, Caesar congratulated both of us for our valor in retaking the Ludus Achillea. He had his secretary present us both with gifts of money and brooches fashioned in the shape of gilded laurel branches.

But then . . .

“Discharged,” Caesar said for a second time, visibly reining in his patience at having to repeat himself when we both expressed our lack of understanding. “Be glad, Caius Varro, it’s not dishonorably.”

Somewhere outside the cool, bright colonnaded room where Caesar had received us that day a bird sang, its voice trilling carelessly and joyfully as it called for its mate. It was the only other sound as I sat, staring openmouthed at the most powerful man in the world as he pronounced the words that decommissioned Cai from his position as an officer in the Roman legions.

For the crime of saving my life.

Cai sat like a stone beside me, his face gone rigid and pale.

“You can’t do that!” I protested, my own voice drowning out the birdsong.

The glare Caesar turned on me told me that of course he could—and would—do anything he damned well pleased. I closed my mouth and bit the inside of my cheek to stay silent. Argument from me would only make it worse for Cai. After a long, fraught silence, Caesar relented a bit. He sighed and pushed himself to standing, waving his servants out of the room and closing the door behind them. Now it was just the three of us—Caesar, Cai, and me—and two of Caesar’s praetorian guards, who might as well have been statues in the room and who, I knew, were loyal to Caesar to the gates of death and beyond.

Cai had been loyal too, I thought.

“I don’t question your actions, Caius,” Caesar said in a quiet, measured tone. “In fact, I applaud them. Of course.” He stalked over to a table that held goblets and a small amphora and poured us each a measure of wine. “You saved my ludus and my honor. I know you didn’t do it for me. Either of you—”

“My lord—”

“Dear girl . . .” He held up a hand, forestalling my protest. “I know why you did it. The fact that you rendered me invaluable service at the same time, well, let us consider that a happy coincidence. I know what was in your heart, and I commend you for your bravery and your loyalty to your . . . what is it the plebs are calling my gladiatrices now? ‘Victrix and her war band’? Charming, really . . .”

The corner of his mouth quirked upward and he laughed a little, shaking his head. But then his expression grew serious again.

“I owe your sister, Achillea, a great deal as well,” he continued. “But I also see now that I have done her a disservice. You two are from a world, Fallon, that values honor over everything else. Rome is not that world. I see now that your sister has yet to fully comprehend that, in spite of her laudable efforts to assimilate.”

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