The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(8)

“I hope so too, my lord,” I said. “There are many fine fighters at the Ludus Achillea—even if we are, as you say, ‘girl’ gladiators. I think we might surprise you.”

“I think you might at that,” he said.

He lapsed into silence, and Cai stepped forward to excuse us. Antony waved a languid hand in a kind of dismissal, and we continued on toward where a carriage waited to take me back to the ludus and Cai back into the city. I could feel Marc Antony’s gaze between my shoulder blades as we walked away.

Once we were inside the covered carriage and on the road, with the sound of wheels and hooves loud in our ears as we clattered over the stone bridge, I shed whatever composure I’d managed to keep up to that point and vented my full fury over the sheer injustice of Cai’s fate. He let me rage for far longer than I probably deserved. When he finally spoke, the look on his face brought me instantly to a stuttering halt.

“Fallon.” His voice was quiet. But it was as hard as I’d ever heard from him. “I understand that you are grieved for me because you think what Caesar has decreed as my fate is a harsh one.”

I swallowed my fiery indignation and clenched my hands into knots. “Isn’t it?” I asked.

He laughed. A bitter bark of derision. “Without Caesar’s intervention,” he said, “I would have faced the full penalty of a very particular Roman law. It’s called poena cuellei, and it’s reserved for those citizens who are found guilty of the murder of a parent. Personally, I’ll take my chances against even the most brutal gladiator in the arena.”

“Rather than . . . ?”

He raised an eyebrow at me and said dryly, “Rather than submitting myself to getting sewn up in a leather sack full of venomous snakes and thrown into the Tiber.”

I blinked at him, dumbstruck.

The carriage rumbled on, and we sat there silently.

I knew that Romans worshipped their ancestry. That their fathers and mothers were almost as gods to them. And I knew that Cai had adored his father. That is, right up until the moment when he’d put a sword through the elder Varro’s guts. To save my life. I could remember with shocking clarity the moment when Cai had thrust the blade between his father’s ribs. Right to the hilt, without hesitation. I remembered Varro’s face, how he had reached for his son . . . and I remembered what Cai had said: “You have no son,” he told his father. “I renounce you, and your name, and your blood. I will not perform the rites for you, old man. I will not put coins for the Ferryman on your eyes. You go to Hades with no issue, no legacy, and no hope to ever walk the fields of Elysium beside my mother’s shade.”

We hadn’t really had an opportunity—or maybe it was that we had avoided the opportunity—to talk about what had happened. But that moment in the carriage I suddenly realized the full import of what Cai had done. What he’d said. He had, in essence, laid a curse upon his father. The man who’d raised him, loved him, taught him how to be a soldier and a man. And then betrayed everything Cai had grown to believe in.

And that had forced Cai to betray everything his people believed in.

“If it weren’t for me,” I said, “none of this ever would have happened—”

“No.” He stopped me again with the sharpness of his tone. “Don’t.”

After a long silence, he sighed and reached for my hand.

“What do you think would have happened if I’d never found out who—what—my father really was, Fallon?” Cai asked me. “If I’d never uncovered the gorgon lurking beneath the mask? What do you think might have happened to me? To my soul? He wanted nothing more than for me to follow in his footsteps.”

I shook my head. “But you wouldn’t have.”

“I don’t know that. I can’t say that with any certainty at all.”

“I can. You are the most honorable man I’ve ever known. And you were my enemy on the day I first met you.”

“And I was a different man until the day I met you.” His eyes searched my face, looking for something . . . I wasn’t sure what. But he smiled and said, “Fallon, I’m—I was—a soldier. I obeyed orders. I did what I was told. It took someone like you crashing headlong into my life to make me see that being a good soldier isn’t necessarily the same as being a good man. You made me want to be an individual. I never had the will to be that on my own without you. I was my father’s son and I was Caesar’s instrument and now I am neither. But I am . . . well, I am my own, I suppose. And I am yours.” He laughed a little. “If you still want me.”

“Oh, Cai . . .”

The carriage slowed to a stop, and he pushed aside the curtain. I looked past him to see we had arrived outside the gates of the Varro estate. The legacy Cai would have to wait to inherit, if he could survive long enough. I vowed silently then that, if I had to will him to live through the trials he would have to face at the Ludus Flaminius, I would sacrifice my soul to the Morrigan to do it. Because Cai had been given a chance for life. In spite of the decrees of his barbaric Roman laws, he would live in the wake of his father’s death. But he would bear the burden of guilt for that for the rest of his life.

That was Caesar’s punishment.

And that was Caesar’s mercy.


Lesley Livingston's Books