The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(6)

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Trust, my dear.” Caesar shook his head, a wan half smile on his face. “A noble, useless, frequently terminal affliction of your people. Achillea trusted Thalestris. She allowed her greatest enemy to get close enough to stab her in the back, Fallon. That’s what blind trust does.”

“I still don’t understand. What does any of that have to do with Cai?”

Caesar sighed gustily. “Because—ironically enough—you’re both going to have to trust that, in this case, what I’ve done is for the best. For you.”

“I do understand,” Cai said, and rose to his feet to face his general. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay in the legions after . . . after what I did. I am honored that you saw fit to deliver the decree yourself.”

Caesar looked at him, silent for a moment, then said, “That’s not all, Cai.”


“I want you to report within three days to the Ludus Flaminius.”

“For what purpose?”

“To train. For the games . . . Gladiator Varro.”

It must have been the discipline instilled in Cai by the legions—which Caesar had only moments ago unceremoniously thrown him out of—that kept Cai standing there, at attention, unmoving and unprotesting. I had no such training. Instead, my undisciplined Cantii emotions came roaring to the surface and I shot to my feet and lurched toward Caesar, only to be stopped cold by the iron grip of Cai’s hand clamped around my upper arm, holding me there immobile. He turned to me.

“Whatever you are about to say in protest, Fallon . . .” His hazel gaze was hard and cool as marble. “Don’t. I will fight my own battles when I find them. There isn’t one here.” He turned back to Caesar, who watched our exchange in silence, and nodded once, curtly. “I’ll be there tomorrow, sir.”

“Good.” Caesar returned the nod, a little less curtly.

Then his gaze flicked over to my face, and his eyes glimmered with the same veiled emotion I’d seen there on more than one occasion when he looked at me. I knew, somehow, that he was thinking of his dead daughter, Julia, in that moment. I wondered, not for the first time, exactly what it was in me that reminded him of her. I knew that she’d died when Caesar had been across the sea, making war upon my own folk—the tribes of the Island of the Mighty—but I didn’t know much more than that. Maybe she’d just argued a lot with her father. Not many other people did that. Cai certainly wasn’t doing it now, and I didn’t understand why.

Caesar decided in that moment to try to explain himself—something else that didn’t happen very often.

“You see, my dear?” he said. “Caius sees what I’m doing, and he trusts me. Because what I’m trying to do is keep him safe. I did not lie when I said I owed you both a debt of gratitude, and I am a man who pays his debts. And takes care of his friends to the best of his abilities.”

“You’re keeping him safe by sending him into the arena?” I asked. Having a rather good deal of experience in that same circumstance, I was skeptical.

Caesar’s eyebrows climbed up his high forehead. “You don’t trust that Caius can handle himself just as well as you?”

I felt my face go red. “Of course not! I—”

“Understand this, Fallon.” Caesar took a sip of his wine before continuing. “And you understand too, Cai. You are in far greater danger walking the streets of Rome than you will be within the walls of a ludus. My ludus.”

Cai nodded. “I understand.”

“I don’t,” I said. “Not really.”

“What Pontius Aquila did,” Caesar explained, “he did with extreme cleverness, Fallon. Because he was in possession of Sorcha’s will—with, of course, Thalestris’s addendum selling him the Ludus Achillea and its assets and chattels and because Thalestris is now dead and unable to offer contrary accounting of the transaction—he’s given his actions the appearance of legitimacy. His story, which he’s widely recounted, is that he was safeguarding the ludus for me upon my eventual return. He blames the dead Amazon for misleading him about the circumstances of the Lady Achillea’s absence—and supposed death—that night. Everything else, he claims, is simply a dreadful misunderstanding. There is, of course, no one to refute that, and insofar as he has graciously returned ownership of the academy now that his perfidy has proven unsuccessful . . . well.” Caesar shrugged. “In the eyes of the senate, a goodly portion of whom are secretly in league—or at least share sympathies—with the Tribune, he is exonerated. A laughingstock to the mob, perhaps, but a man of honorable actions among his peers.”

I felt my blood simmering hotly in my veins at the thought of Pontius Aquila suffering no consequences for his evils. I don’t know that I’d really been expecting that he would. Hoped, yes—fervently so—but I was growing inured to the casual corruption of Roman high society. It flowed through the city’s elite like the River Styx: hidden deep underground, thick and stinking, with a current that would pull even the best of men down to a drowning death if they lost footing on its banks.

“Caius, on the other hand,” Caesar continued, “is not so lucky. In the eyes of the senate—and the people—he is guilty of patricide. There is no greater affront to a true Roman. Compounding that heinous crime is the fact that Decimus Fulvius Varro was one of the wealthiest and most influential senators in all of Rome. A decorated war hero. A man who was loved by all.” He took another sip from his cup. “A man who hated me. Oh, not publicly, not loudly, but vehemently . . . and for many years.”

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