Valerius found two men waiting in the atrium when he returned home after a frustrating day at the courts, and he glared his annoyance at Tiberius, the steward who had invited them in. His body still ached from his bruising encounter with Serpentius and his temper wasn’t helped by the fact that the smaller of the two men, a greasy, overweight youth who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, addressed him as if he were the owner of the house and Valerius a none too welcome guest.
‘You are Gaius Valerius Verrens, former tribune of the Twentieth legion?’ he demanded in a high-pitched, petulant voice.
‘Gaius Valerius Verrens, holder of the Gold Crown of Valour,’ Valerius corrected, winning a smirk from the taller of the two, whose broad shoulders and quiet alertness marked him as a bodyguard, as did his face, which had collided with solid objects more often than was good for it. ‘And who might you be?’
The plump youth fumbled beneath his cloak. ‘Claudius Helvius Collina,’ he announced, brandishing the gold ring bearing his seal of office like a betting ticket. ‘Imperial messenger.’
Valerius reached for the ring and noticed the big man tense. He didn’t have any doubt it was genuine, but it didn’t do to make life easy for pipsqueaks with ideas above their station. The messenger snatched it away, but Valerius insisted and eventually Collina handed it over, although he maintained his grip on the chain.
When he was satisfied, Valerius gave the ring back. ‘Very well. What message do you have for me?’
‘You are to attend the gatehouse at the Clivus Victoriae tomorrow at the second hour.’
‘I don’t want to hear it, I want to read it.’ He held out his hand.
‘The message is to be relayed orally. This man is here to confirm that it has been done and the wording is correct.’
For a moment Valerius felt like someone who hears a rumbling in the distance and knows it is an avalanche, but finds he can’t move his feet to get out of the way. A summons was bad enough, but one without written confirmation hinted at trickery, or worse. This was no invitation to a reception or one of the Emperor’s recitals. He considered his options and quickly decided he didn’t have any.
When the two men had left, a kitchen slave asked when Valerius would want his evening meal, but he discovered he wasn’t hungry. He knew he should go to Olivia, but he felt as if he were sitting on a volcano and if the volcano erupted it would consume Olivia just as it would consume him. He needed time to think. Who knew everything that went on in Rome from the Palatine to the prison cells below the Castra Praetoria? A silken voice whispered inside his head and he had a vision of a beautiful face.
How much should she say? Fabia Faustina handed Valerius a gilded cup and lay back on her couch. When the servant had arrived asking for an appointment her heart had lurched like a fourteen-year-old virgin’s. What was it about the young soldier that made her feel this way? Yes, he was handsome, with the determined features of a young Caesar. And he had the hardened physique that only military service or manual labour gave a man. But many of her clients were handsome men with fine bodies. The missing arm didn’t disgust her, quite the opposite, but neither did it account for this unlikely infatuation. He was brave and honest, but these were not attributes she necessarily found attractive. Not his courage nor his looks, then. It was something inside; the melancholy he tried to hide behind his eyes. So many of the men who came to this house sought her love, but had to make do with her body. Of them all, only Valerius would never be able to love her in return, and that was a challenge she could not resist.
But now? How much should she say? What should she tell him? And, more important, what should she not?
‘I do not think you need fear for your life, Valerius.’
‘Perhaps not yet,’ he agreed. ‘But I have an old soldier’s instinct for survival and I smell an ambush somewhere along the road.’
‘Old soldier?’ The description amused her. ‘How old are you? Not yet twenty-six years. It will be a long time before you are an old soldier, my dear, and you have many more laurels to win before that time comes.’
He smiled with her. ‘Experienced, then. Experienced enough to know when to watch my flanks as well as my front.’
‘That is always wise in Rome,’ she agreed. ‘One pair of eyes will never be enough to guard against the potential dangers here.’
‘Which is why I came to you. Have you heard word of anything unusual at court? It is still only June but the city feels like a boiling pot with a jammed lid.’
‘You think I am an old busybody who is only interested in gathering gossip, Valerius?’ she mocked.
‘Not old, nor a busybody.’ He smiled back. ‘I think you are clever and wise, which are very different things, and I think you will always be beautiful and always be desirable.’
She gave a little laugh and bowed her golden head at the flattery. ‘Pretty words from a simple soldier, and words any woman would be happy to hear, but time will ever be the enemy of beauty and age the enemy of desire. All we can hope is to use what we have well.’ The last sentence reminded him of Olivia and she saw it in his face. ‘The Emperor has many responsibilities and many concerns, Valerius. Since the death of his mother he has turned to his astrologers more often than to his advisers. He would not be Nero if he did not suspect everyone. He studies his predecessors and notes that they were destroyed by those closest to them. Where others revile his late uncle, Gaius Caligula, Nero admires him, for his ambition if not his aptitude for survival. He has the same ambition but understands the need to keep his Praetorians close. He believes his mother poisoned both Claudius and his natural father, which is one of the many reasons he removed her. When he sent Seneca away he thought he had cleansed the nest. Now his augurs speak of an enemy within the gates of Rome. A sinister force akin to a beast with many heads that is burrowing into the rock of the Palatine itself and undermining him. They say the very Empire is threatened. Nero wishes to lash out. Fortunately, he has advisers who preach more prudent counsel and reason stays his hand, for the moment. It is said he is confused and unhappy and it is when he is confused and unhappy, not when he is angry, that he is at his most dangerous.’
‘Who says this?’
She shook her head. ‘People tell me things, Valerius, but do not ask me who, or how, or why, because you may not like the answer. Accept what you are given; do not question the motives or the validity of the source.’
He nodded. His trust, at least, he could give freely. ‘I don’t doubt that what you say is true, but I still cannot see how it helps me.’
‘Poor Valerius, who does not recognize his own value. You look at tomorrow and see only your fears. Consider the advantages. The opportunity to regain the Emperor’s favour.’
‘The last time I had the Emperor’s favour I did not like the advantages it brought.’
‘He tried to seduce you and you refused him? Do not look so shocked, Valerius, of course I could see it. And if he had succeeded? What fools men are to take the act of physical love so seriously. Warmth, comfort perhaps; if you are fortunate, a little passion and a fleeting moment of pleasure. Would it have altered you? I have done things, Valerius, that would perhaps change your opinion of me, but I have not let them change me.’ She spoke the last sentence with a ferocity that made him wonder if it was true. It had never occurred to him to feel sorry for her. But Fabia was nothing if not an actress, and she quickly recovered her poise. ‘Whatever anger Nero felt against you is long past. If you had been one of those simpering slave boys he surrounds himself with, or one of his lusty charioteers, he might have had you killed or put away, but you are a Hero of Rome. He dare not touch you, because to harm you would risk alienating the legions and he cannot rule without their support. My advice to you is this: whatever he asks, be prepared to at least consider it.’
Despite his doubts, he knew that she was right. He had asked for her advice; how could he refuse it?
‘Will you stay with me for an hour?’ This was different. Their meetings had always been, for all their pleasure in each other’s company, on a purely commercial basis. Her voice had changed, the tone low and husky and filled with desire. He knew he should refuse.
As she led him through to the bedroom she wondered what he would think if he knew the truth. Would he ever forgive her?
It was late when Valerius returned home, his head full of that half-floating sensation that comes after long hours with a beautiful, sensuous and passionate woman intent on ensuring her own satisfaction and yours. His body gave a pleasurable shudder at the memory of the miracles Fabia had wrought and the feelings that had accompanied them. Perhaps…
He heard the sobbing as he entered the atrium and he rushed to Olivia’s room to find Julia lying hunched on the bed beside his sister. She looked up. ‘It is as if yesterday had never happened,’ she sobbed. ‘She hasn’t woken or moved all day. You must help her. She’s dying.’
‘I’m sorry, Julia. I shouldn’t have left you. I will find someone else tomorrow. A nurse or a companion.’
‘It isn’t a nurse or a companion she needs. It is her family,’ the girl said accusingly.
He stared at her. He would never have taken those words from another slave, but Julia and his sister had been together since they were children. She was Olivia’s best friend as well as her servant.
‘I’ll send a message to the Judaean. He said he would visit Olivia.’
The suggestion calmed the girl, and he waved her from the room.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, taking his familiar place beside the bed. ‘I neglected you today for the wrong reasons and tomorrow I will have to neglect you for the right ones. Do you remember…’
Her eyes remained closed, but her face told him that she could hear him.