The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(7)

I gaped at Caesar. “You knew this?”

Caesar nodded. “And could do nothing.”

“But you trusted Cai.”

“I did. I still do.” He turned and gazed up at the tapestry, at Jupiter lifting his father, Saturn, above his head, ready to cast him down. “The father is not the son.”

“No,” Cai said softly, staring up at the image. “He isn’t . . .”

“I will hold your father’s estate and assets in trust,” Caesar continued, “until such time as it is safe for you to reclaim your inheritance. In the meantime, all I can ask of you is to forgive me for that necessity.”

“No need for forgiveness, my lord,” Cai said, with a brief bow of his head. “Only thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Caesar stood. “Now go. Fight well. And, for the love of the gods, Caius . . . survive.”

Something about the tone of Caesar’s voice raised the hackles on the back my neck. Yes, Cai, I thought, for the love of the gods—yours and mine—survive.

* * *

As we made our way through the enclosed courtyard toward the main doors of the villa, we passed a man sitting on a bench at the edge of a cascading fountain. Cai nodded briefly without breaking his stride.

“The legions will be the poorer without you,” the man called after us.

Cai halted in his tracks, and together we turned to address the man, who sat carving a pear with a small, sharp knife.

“Damned shame,” he said, popping a slice of fruit into his mouth and licking the blade. “Really. Sorry to hear about it, Decurion Varro.”

“Citizen Varro, General Antony,” Cai said, and turned a tight grin on the man. “Or Gladiator Varro, if you please.”

Antony, I thought. That’s Marcus Antonius.

Of course, I’d heard of Caesar’s close friend and protégé—the brilliant general and notorious philanderer—everyone had. Most of what I knew of the man was through what Antonia, my sister gladiatrix, had told me. She was a distant relation of his, born out of wedlock to a third cousin of the sprawling Antonine clan and treated worse than a kitchen slave growing up. When she was old enough, Antonia had decided to take her chances begging on the streets of Rome before finding her way to the ludus. She’d never met her infamous cousin face-to-face, she said, but she’d been under the same roof enough times to have surmised that the actual character of the man bore out the rumors.

He was, by her account, a cad. He was also, by everyone else’s account, a genius soldier and cunning strategist. I took the few moments he stood speaking to Cai to study Antony’s features. He was handsome in a way that was almost pretty, except for his mouth, which was thin-lipped and looked apt to shift from an expression of warmth to one of mockery with little effort. He wore coral-studded wristbands of silver and a richly embroidered cloak that hung in deep russet folds gathered over his left arm. His hair was dark and thick and carefully curled. I tried to picture him in a soldier’s gear, but my mind wouldn’t bend to the image. Still, I suspected it would be a mistake to underestimate the man. When he shifted the drape of his cloak, I noticed he also had a plain—and, from the look of the grip, well-used—short sword strapped to his waist.

“Ah, yes,” Antony said with a grin. “Gladiator Varro. Well. You were an inspired fighter in the field. I’ll be sure to cheer you on at your first bout in the arena.”

“From the sounds of things, you may be the only one.” Cai shrugged. “The only time the mob appreciates a disgraced hero is when they can disgrace him all the more. I won’t be showered in laurel sheaves, I don’t think. But I thank you.”

“Don’t thank me.” Antony laughed and tossed the core of the pear he’d eaten into the nearby shrubbery. “I’ll cheer for you because you’ll win. You’ll have to. And when you do, the mob will forget all about what you did. It’s that easy to turn them in the other direction, Varro. Trust me.”

Cai didn’t trust him. I could see that in his eyes, plainly.

In the back of my mind, I wondered why Caesar did.

Cai smiled and nodded politely, and it was only then that Antony seemed to notice me, standing there at Cai’s side. His gaze shifted and flicked over me, head to foot, with profound disinterest. At first. Until the moment he was about to turn away—and then something sparked behind his eyes, and he blinked. And smiled.

“Am I right in guessing that you are Caesar’s pet project?” he asked, turning his full attention on me. “The girl gladiator?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cai wince.

“I am Fallon ferch Virico, General Antony,” I replied. “They call me Victrix in the arena. And, yes, I suppose I am Caesar’s pet project.” I tilted my head and smiled sweetly. “One of them, at least. I hear he has others.”

Cai’s wince turned to a grin that he swiftly hid behind his hand.

Marc Antony’s eyes flashed hotly for an instant. But then his smile widened, baring a row of straight white teeth. “I’m afraid, Victrix, that I’ve missed your performances to date on the sands,” he said, and stood, reaching to take my hand and bending low over it. “That is, I can plainly see, a deficiency on my part. One I hope to have the opportunity to remedy.”

Lesley Livingston's Books