Here’s a taste of draft Chapter 9 from Games of Rome. Warning: Spoilers for Book 1, Dominus. Raw and unedited. I hope to post the entire draft chapter later this week. Then we leave the eternal city (for a while) and return to the villa, finally! Happy Sunday. 😀
With soldierly determination, Gaius approached the arches of the great Julian basilica; the ancient civic building soared three stories high into the cloudless blue sky. Morning sunbeams reflected off the white marble blocks and the red-orange terracotta roof tiles. Magnificent and sublime, the basilica of Julius Caesar housed the famous Court of the Hundred. Today, ten of those inheritance judges would preside over the unsealing of Luc’s will in front of as many people as managed to cram inside the hall. Boisterous crowds frothed with anticipation and jostled as they waited for the guards to permit entrance. A fistfight broke out, soon quelled by a blow from a sentry’s heavy shield. All of Rome was anxious for the final spectacle of death. Who would be the heir to Lucius Petronius’s substantial estate?
As Gaius began the short climb up the broad steps to the main entryway, he spotted a group of boys huddled together in the shadows of a nearby archway. Between the forest of spindly lad legs sat two prepubescent urchins. One tossed a handful of knucklebones up into the air over a gaming board incised into the marble step; his companions cheered when he caught four of the playing pieces.
“Who’s winning?” Gaius asked as he removed his polished silver parade helmet.
“Tiberius, sir. But he’s a cheater,” answered one lad with a scowl, his mop of dirty blond hair hanging down past his nose as he pointed to the smaller of the two players.
“That’s a serious allegation. How do you know he’s cheating, scamp?”
“Because he always cheats. He’s a trickster. Fast with the hands and all.”
“A young Ulysses in the making, then?” Gaius leaned down and ruffled the dark-haired boy’s locks and warned, “Be mindful, son. The gods are watching you.”
“The only gods that watch me are my father’s household spirits, and those shitheads are back home in their shrine.” The boy spat back with a smirk, mischief twinkling in his light blue eyes—the same color and shape as Lucius’s eyes.
A dainty hand snaked its way through the boys’ bodies and slapped young Tiberius’s head. “Tiberius! Watch your language! You’re not some wretched street dog,” a woman shouted before she withdrew her arm.
By Minerva’s tits, Gaius hadn’t heard that voice in years. And yet there she was, standing beside her husband, Titus Petronius. She turned to Titus and tugged his elbow. “You shouldn’t allow your son to gamble with low-born rabble. It’s—it’s unseemly.”
“He’s not gambling, darling; he’s only doing what all lads do. These common boys may grow up to be soldiers and, if they’re lucky, serve under our son’s command. It’s important for Tiberius to be streetwise and understand the ways of the proletariat. Isn’t that right, Commander Fabius?”
“Don’t drag me into your marital squabbles, Governor Petronius. Antonia, my dear—it’s lovely to see you.”
Antonia pushed away a strawberry-blonde curl that had stuck to the sweat on her flushed cheek. A formidable conversationalist in her private dining room, she still suffered that annoying habit of acting skittish whenever she was in his presence in public. “Greetings, Commander Fabius.” As if deliberately refusing to look him in the eye, Antonia glanced around. “Is your wife attending the ceremonies?”
“Alas, no. She’s resting at home. This heat and these crowds are unwise given her condition.”
“Yes, of course. Titus shared the wonderful news. Please do give Marcia my congratulations, won’t you?” Antonia paused and added. “And to you as well. Um, I mean… both of you.”
“Thank you, Antonia.” Gaius grinned politely as he absentmindedly fiddled with Lucius’s gold signet ring wrapped around his finger before gesturing towards the stately door. “The proceedings should begin soon. Shall we go in?”
As they held the excited mob back with their shields and spears, the guards positioned on either side of the enormous bronze door allowed Gaius, Titus, and Antonia passage through the portal. The bright sunshine of the Forum gave way to the dim light of the cavernous interior. On the left side of the wide central aisle, ivory chairs for the imperial household sat empty atop a grand dais. In the center of the basilica’s nave, a platform had been constructed for the ten toga-clad judges who were seated and chatting like hens as they fidgeted. Despite the rows of slaves waving palms leaves, the place was as fucking hot as Hades.
After escorting Antonia to her seat beside the weasel widow, Gaius and Titus made their way to the open area in front of the judges’ platform. The five other witnesses were already present, shuffling their feet, impatient for the proceedings to start. Pliny, one of the witnesses, nodded and stepped to side; Gaius patted his shoulder but said nothing. What was there to say on this awful day? He turned to survey the crowd behind him. In the far back, Bryaxis and Euphronia sat on low stools. The Caledonian stared at the marble floor with his hands clasped while Euphronia hugged herself tight. Everyone was here, melting in the oppressive heat, but nothing would begin until Marcus and Plotina arrived in a flourish of colorful fabric and imperial pomp.
Titus leaned over and extended his hand. “Greetings, Gaius Plinius.”
“Greetings to you, Governor Petronius. Please accept my condolences for your loss. I hope the sea journey from Athens was pleasant.”
“Thankfully, the waters were calm. Neptune slept as we sailed, but my heart was as heavy as an anchor.” Titus bit his lower lip. “Despite our swift voyage, I missed my brother’s funeral. May his spirit forgive me.”
Pliny scratched his chin, unable to muster a quick, thoughtful reply. Just as he opened his mouth, the trumpeters blew their horns to announce the arrival of the emperor. The crowd rose to its feet while Marcus, in the company of the Praetorian Guard, guided his wife to their chairs in the front row. Publius and Sabina stepped onto the stage and took their seats, followed by other members of the imperial family. Everyone appeared appropriately glum and stern faced, which seemed comical given that each wore bright, festive attire. No doubt there would be another lavish banquet at the palace tonight. Thank the gods he’d be far from Rome on the road to Campania long before the first course was served.
Gaius scanned the faces of the helmeted Praetorians. Where the fuck was the Prefect, Livianus? First the amphitheater and now his absence here? He glanced back at Aurelia; she caught his interrogating gaze and flinched before averting her eyes.
Had Maximus gained access by now? Could he steal Luc’s statuette without incident? What if she’d left guards to monitor the house?
But Max was armed. He had years of experience at thievery. He’d be fine. It would work.
Gaius closed his eyes and recited a short prayer to gods that never gave a damn about any mortal’s welfare.
Be safe, Maximus.
A loud thump of the emperor’s bronze scepter on the dais quieted the voices buzzing throughout the hall to a low hush. Even the mob of lucky spectators crowded onto the second balcony lowered their conversations to whispers.
The eldest inheritance judge cleared his throat and began. “Our most esteemed and glorious Emperor Trajan, noble Senators, dutiful witnesses, fellow magistrates, priests, and people of Rome. We are here today for the reading of the last testament of Lucius Petronius Celsus, the most illustrious chief counselor of the imperial court, a proud son of Rome viciously cut down in his prime.”