ONE YEAR LATER
Marcus Lucianus Valerian walked through a maze of streets in the Eternal City, hoping to find a sanctuary o0f peace within himself. He couldn't. Rome was depressing. He had forgotten the stench of the polluted Tiber and the oppressive, mingled humanity. Or maybe he had never before noticed, too involved in his own life and activities to care. Over the past few weeks since returning to the city of his birth, he had spent hours wandering the streets, visiting places he had always enjoyed before. Now the laughter of friends was hollow, the frenetic feasting and drinking exhausting rather than satisfying.
Downcast and needing distraction, he agreed to attend the games with Antigonus. His friend was now a powerful senator and held a place of honor on the podium. Marcus tried to still his emotions as he entered the stands and found his seat. But he could not deny he felt uncomfortable when the trumpets began blaring. His chest tightened and his stomach became a hard knot as the procession began.
He hadn't been to the games since Ephesus. He wondered if he could stomach watching them now. It was painfully clear that Antigonus was more obsessed with them than he had been when Marcus left Rome, and he was betting heavily on a gladiator from Gaul.
Several women joined them beneath the canopy. Beautiful and voluptuous, they made it apparent within moments of their arrival that they were as interested in Marcus as in the games. Something stirred in Marcus as he looked at them, but disappeared as quickly as it came. These women were shallow, tainted water to Hadassah's pure, heady wine. He found no amusement in their idle, vain conversation. Even Antigonus, who had always amused him, began to shred his nerves with his collection of ribald jokes. Marcus wondered how he had ever thought such obscene stories amusing or felt any pity for Antigonus' litany of financial woes.
"Tell another one," one of the women laughed, obviously enjoying the crude joke Antigonus had just related to them.
"Your ears will burn," Antigonus warned, eyes dancing.
"Another!" everyone agreed.
Everyone but Marcus. He sat silent, filled with disgust. They dress up like vain peacocks and laugh like raucous crows, he thought as he watched them all.
One of the woman moved to recline beside him. She pressed her hip against him enticingly. "The games always stir me," she said with purring softness, her eyes dark.
Repulsed, Marcus ignored her. She began to talk of one of her many lovers, watching Marcus' face for signs of interest. She only sickened him further. He looked at her, making no effort to hide his feelings, but she was oblivious. She simply continued her intended seduction with all the subtlety of a tigress pretending to be a housecat.
All the while, the bloody games went on unabated. Antigonus and the women laughed, mocked, and shouted curses down on the victims in the arena. Marcus' nerves stretched tight as he watched his companions ... as he realized they relished the suffering and death going on before them.
Sickened by what he was seeing, he turned to drink for escape. He drained cup after cup of wine, desperate to drown out the screams of those in the arena. And yet, no amount of the numbing liquid could hold off the image that kept coming to his mind ... the image of another place, another victim. He had hoped the wine would deaden him. Instead, it made him more acutely aware.
Around him, the masses of people grew frenzied with excitement. Antigonus caught hold of one of the women, and they became entangled. Unbidden, a vision came to Marcus ... a vision of his sister, Julia. He remembered how he had brought her to the games her first time and laughed at the burning excitement in her dark eyes.
"I won't shame you, Marcus. I swear. I won't faint at the sight of blood." And she hadn't.
Unable to stand more, Marcus rose.
Shoving his way through the ecstatic crowd, he made his way up the steps. As soon as he was able, he ran-as he had in Ephesus. He wanted to get away from the noise, away from the smell of human blood. Pausing to get his breath, he leaned his shoulder against a stone wall and vomited.
Hours after the games were over, he could still hear the sound of the hungry mob screaming for more victims. The sound echoed in his mind, tormenting him.
But then, that was all he had known since Hadassah's death. Torment. And a terrible, black emptiness.
"Have you been avoiding us?" Antigonus said a few days later when he came to pay Marcus a visit. "You didn't come to Crassus' feast last night. Everyone was looking forward to seeing you."
"I had work to do." Marcus had thought to return to Rome permanently, hoping against hope that he would find the peace he so desperately longed for. He knew now his hopes had been in vain. He looked at Antigonus and shook his head. "I'm only in Rome for a few more months."
"I thought you had returned to stay," Antigonus said, clearly surprised by his statement.
"I've changed my mind," Marcus replied shortly.
"For reasons I'd rather not discuss."
Antigonus' eyes darkened, and his voice dripped with sarcasm when he spoke. "Well, I hope you'll find time to attend the feast I've planned in your honor. And why do you look so annoyed? By the gods, Marcus, you've changed since going to Ephesus. What happened to you there?"
"I've work to do, Antigonus."
"You need distraction from these dark moods of yours." He became so cajoling, Marcus knew he would soon be asking for money. "I've arranged entertainment guaranteed to drive away whatever black thoughts plague your mind."
"All right, all right! I'll come to your bloody feast," Marcus said, impatient for Antigonus' departure. Why couldn't anyone understand that he just wanted to be left alone? "But I've no time for idle conversation today."
"Graciously said," Antigonus said mockingly, then rose to leave. He swept his robes around himself and made for the door, then paused and looked back at his friend in annoyance. "I certainly hope you're in a better humor tomorrow night."
Antigonus had neglected to tell him that Arria would be in attendance. Within moments of arriving, Marcus saw her. He gave Antigonus an annoyed look, but the senator merely smiled smugly and leaned toward him with a sly expression. "She was your lover for almost two years, Marcus." He laughed low. "That's far longer than anyone has lasted since." At the expression on Marcus' face, he raised a questioning brow. "You look displeased. You did tell me you parted with her amicably."
Arria was still beautiful, still intent on gaining the adoration of every male in the room, still amoral and eager for any new excitement. However, Marcus saw subtle changes. The soft loveliness of youth had given way to a harder-edged worldliness. Her laughter held no exuberance or pleasure-rather, it carried a quality of brashness and crudity that grated. Several men hovered around her, and she alternately teased each, making jokes at their expense and offering whispered suggestive observations. She glanced across the room then, looking at Marcus in question. He knew she was wondering why he hadn't been caught by the smile she had cast him when he came in. But he knew that smile for what it was: bait for a hungry fish.
Unfortunately for Arria, Marcus was not hungry. Not any longer.
Antigonus leaned closer. "See how she looks at you, Marcus. You could have her back with a snap of your fingers. The man who's watching her like a pet dog is her current conquest, Metrodorus Crateuas Merula. What he lacks in wit, he more than makes up for in money. He's almost as rich as you are, but then our little Arria has money of her own these days. Her book created quite a furor."
"Book?" Marcus said and gave a sardonic laugh. "I didn't know Arria could write her name, let alone string enough words together to make a sentence."
"Obviously, you know nothing of what she's written or you wouldn't be making light of it. It's hardly a laughing matter. Our little Arria had secret talents unbeknownst to us. She's become a woman of letters, or more precisely, erotica. A do-all, tell-all collection of stories. By the gods, it's stirred up trouble in high places. One senator lost his wife over it. Not that he minded the loss of the woman, but her family connections cost him dearly. Rumor has it he may be forced into suicide. Arria has never been what you would call discreet. Now, I think she's addicted to scandal. She has scribes working night and day making copies of her little tome. The price for one copy is exorbitant."
"Which you undoubtedly paid," Marcus said dryly.
"But of course," Antigonus said with a laugh. "I wanted to see if she would mention me. She did. In chapter eleven. To my dismay, it was a rather cursory mention." He glanced at Marcus with an amused smile. "She wrote about you in detail-and at length. No wonder Sarapais was so enamored of you at the games the other day. She wanted to see if you were all Arria said you were." He grinned. "You should buy a copy for yourself and read it, Marcus. It might bring back a few sweet memories."
"For all her exquisite beauty, Arria is crass and best forgotten."
"A rather cruel assessment of a woman you once loved, isn't it?" Antigonus said, measuring him.
"I never loved Arria." Marcus turned his attention to the dancing girls undulating before him. The bells on their ankles and wrists jingled, grating on his nerves. Rather than be aroused by the boldness of their sensual dance and transparently veiled bodies, he felt discomfited. He wished their performance would end and they would depart.
Antigonus reached out to grasp one of the women and pulled her down onto his lap. Despite her struggling, he kissed her passionately. When he drew back, he laughed and said to Marcus, "Pick one for yourself."
The slave girl cried out, and the sound sent Marcus' insides instinctively recoiling. He had seen the look on the girl's face before-in Hadassah's eyes when he had let his own passions burn out of control.
"Let her go, Antigonus."
Others were watching Antigonus, laughing and calling out encouragement. Drunk and provoked, Antigonus became rougher in his determination to have his way. The girl screamed.
Marcus found himself on his feet. "Let her go!"
The room fell silent, all eyes staring at Marcus in astonishment. Laughing, Antigonus raised his head and looked at him in mild surprise. His laughter died. Alarmed, he rolled to one side, releasing the girl.
Weeping hysterically, she stumbled to her feet and scrambled away.
Antigonus regarded Marcus quizzically. "My apologies, Marcus. If you wanted her that badly, why didn't you say so earlier?"
Marcus felt Arria's eyes fixed on him like hot coals, burning with jealousy. He wondered fleetingly what punishment the slave girl would receive at Arria's hands for something that had nothing to do with her. "I didn't want the girl," he said tersely. "Nor any other in this room."
Whispers rippled. Several women glanced at Arria and smirked.
Antigonus' countenance darkened. "Then why intrude upon my pleasure?"
"You were about to rape the girl."
Antigonus laughed dryly. "Rape? Given another moment, she would have enjoyed it."
"I doubt that."
Antigonus' humor evaporated, his eyes flashing at the insult. "Since when did a slave's feelings matter to you? I've seen you take your pleasure in like ways a time or two."
"I don't need to be reminded," Marcus said grimly, downing the remainder of the wine in his cup. "What I do need is a breath of fresh air."
He went out into the gardens, but found no relief there, for Arria followed him, Merula at her side. Gritting his teeth, Marcus bore their presence. She talked about their love affair as though it had ended yesterday and not four years before. Merula glared at Marcus, who felt pity for the man. Arria had always enjoyed tormenting her lovers.
"Have you read my book, Marcus?" she said, her voice dripping honey.
"It's quite good. You'd enjoy it."
"I've lost my taste for trash," he said, his gaze flickering over her.
Her eyes flashed. "I lied about you, Marcus," she said, her face contorted with rage. "You were the worst lover I ever had!"
Marcus grinned back at her coldly. "That's because I'm the only one who walked away from you with blood still in his veins." Turning his back on her, he strolled away.
Ignoring the names she called him, he left the garden. Returning to the banquet, he looked for distraction in conversations with old acquaintances and friends. But their laughter grated; their amusement was always at someone else's expense. He heard the pettiness behind the amusing remarks, the relish as new tragedies were recounted.
Leaving the group, he reclined on a couch, drank morosely, and watched people. He noticed the games they played with one another. They put on masks of civility, all the while spewing their venom. And then it hit him. Gatherings and feasts such as this had once been a large part of his life. He had relished them.
Now, he wondered why he was here ... why he had ever returned to Rome at all.
Antigonus approached him, his arm thrown carelessly around a richly clad, pale-skinned girl. Her smile was sensual. She had the curves of Aphrodite, and for an instant his flesh responded to the dark intensity of her eyes. It had been a long time since he had been with a woman.
Antigonus noted Marcus' appraisal and smiled, pleased with himself. "You like her. I knew you would. She's quite luscious." Removing his arm from around the woman, he gave her a gentle nudge, though she needed none. She fell lightly against Marcus' chest and gazed up at him with parted lips. Antigonus smiled, obviously pleased with himself. "Her name is Didyma."
Marcus took hold of Didyma's shoulders and set her back from him, smiling wryly at Antigonus. The woman looked from him to her master in question, and Antigonus shrugged. "It would appear he doesn't want you, Diddy." He waved his hand carelessly in dismissal.
Marcus set his goblet down firmly. "I appreciate the gesture, Antigonus-"
"But ...," he said ruefully and shook his head. "You perplex me, Marcus. No interest in women. No interest in the games. What happened to you in Ephesus?"
"Nothing you would understand."
Marcus gave him a sardonic smile. "I would not entrust my private life to so public a man."
Antigonus' eyes narrowed. "There's a bite in your every word these days," he said softly. "How have I offended you that you take on such a condemning air?"
Marcus shook his head. "It's not you, Antigonus. It's all of it."