by Pema Donyo
To be, rather than to seem…
95 A.D., Rome
Hell’s gates! Betrayal was the killer.
“How was I supposed to understand your riddle?” Flavia swung her basket against her side while she narrowed her eyes at her father, Lucius Hyrcanus Flavius. “Betrayal is not a person.”
The former general clucked his tongue. “Is it not? An army breaks down due to him, the weak choose him, and senators have died over him.”
Several members of her father’s guard followed close behind them. The tang of raw meat spiked the air amidst the familiar squabbling of negotiating merchants. Beside the poultry stalls stood craftsmen selling earthenware. Attic black-figured pottery, simple black-glazed ware, and semi-glazed jugs lined up in little rows on low stools. Faded ends of wool togas dragged against the dirt floor as others continued their hunt for the best prices among the vendors.
Then the crowd began to murmur, and several swishes of silk stolas parted to reveal two members of the Praetorian Guard marching toward the center of the marketplace. Their silver breastplates shone under the midmorning sun, their purple capes billowing behind them as they strode forward.
One scowled at passersby, while the other kept his stern gaze searching among the different citizens. When he noticed Flavia and her father, he nudged the other guard.
Her stomach plummeted as she watched the two men continue their march. She tugged at her father’s arm. They should go, why will he not leave? But he remained immobile. Her father’s jaw clenched as one of the guards seized him, one hand forcing Flavius in place while the other rested on his sword hilt.
Members of her father’s guard rushed forward. Their swords met with a loud clang as their silver collided with that of the Praetorians. They withdrew, then charged at one another again with fresh zeal. Finally, one of the emperor’s men brandished a scroll from beneath his cloak. The effect was immediate, and her father’s guard lowered their swords.
Flavius wrenched against the guards’ hold as his sandals kicked up plumes of dust. “What is the meaning of this?”
Yet the Praetorians held fast against their prisoner’s grip. The scowling guard cleared his throat. “Consular Flavius, you have been accused of plotted murder against our Emperor.”
“Let him go!” Flavia dropped her woven basket and started to run toward her father.
Another arm stopped her path. She struggled against the firm grip of her father’s guard, keeping her at bay from the Praetorians.
“I served our Emperor as a commander in Dacia!” He held his head high. “This must be a mistake.”
One of the Praetorians grunted. The other hacked up a wad of spit and aimed it at Flavius’s feet as they continued to drag him along the dusty marketplace road.
A small crowd gathered around the scene, whispers and accusations floating among them. Flavia felt their stares burn against the exposed skin of her neck, their vicious voices drifting in and out with disapproval. She swallowed down the panic rising in her throat. They were wrong, all of them. Her father had dedicated his life to the emperor!
She watched the men usher him away from the market center. Several members of her father’s guard followed after the Praetorians, as if to affirm that her father had been arrested for maeistas. Others returned to her family’s villa straightaway, in case any of the emperor’s guard had been sent to the house. None of the other spectators offered any comfort or support; they stared at her as if she were a branded piece of cattle.
A low voice muttered close to her ear. “Such a pity his senatorial career should end before its beginning.”
She recognized that Pluto-like voice anywhere. Apronicus Domitius Antonius. Her toes curled within her sandals. Of course, who else would be behind this?
Flavia whirled around to face the smug face of her father’s rival. “He possesses no desire to enter politics.” She bit her tongue. Though I believe you are the one who does.
Antonius scoffed. “Rumors have been swirling around the Senate for weeks now about appointing him. A seat he clearly does not deserve…” He pointed to the spot where her father had struggled in vain. “…as has proved so evident.”
With a toss of his cotton cloak over his shoulders, Antonius brushed past her and headed away from the forum. The bastard.
Flavia knelt down to retrieve her basket, covering her head with her palla. In the name of Jupiter, how would she explain this to the slaves at home? The gods had punished her father for nothing more than invoking the jealousy of another.
Titus’s back straightened as he heard the clopping of hooves pass by. From his perch in the tree, he could overlook all those who traveled the road leading from the market to the villas on the outskirts of Rome. Light blue fabric astride a brisk horse caught his eye. A girl – and alone.
Titus scanned her belongings. A few packs attached to the horse. Nothing substantial, but perhaps enough for him to purchase another supper if she had not spent all her denarii.
Worth an attempt, at least.
He jumped down onto the road, several paces from where the woman’s horse was. As soon as the horse saw him, she whinnied and raised herself on her hind legs. The girl screamed and fell, her body sprawled to the ground.
He grabbed her packs and tossed them over his shoulder. From the corner of his eye, he spotted the girl begin to crawl away. She froze in place as he strode to where she lay. With his free hand, he unsheathed his sicae and raised the blade toward her neck.
Her wide brown eyes blinked at him as she pressed her back flat against the ground. Odd, those eyes looked familiar. He banished the thought, adjusting the packs.
“Titus? Is that you?”
His grip on the sicae loosened. By the wrath of Mars, how did she know his name?
She furrowed her brows and focused her gaze on him. “It is you.” Her voice rose. “You served my father in Dacia. General Flavius.”
That was where he had seen her. Hazy memories of the general’s feast filtered through his thoughts.
He shook his head, as if it was enough to vanquish any trace of a memory from that night.
Her voice trembled. “If you had any respect at all for my father, please let me go.”
“That was years ago.” Titus swallowed hard. Ah, to serve among the Roman legions. There were the harsh marches under the blaze of a midday sun; then there was the creeping suspicion that you were nothing more than a prized trophy being paraded around. And what was the result? A cowardly peace treaty. Funny, they were always told that a true Roman would never surrender. He steadied his hand on the blade.
“At the very least let me return to the slaves and tell them what has happened to their master.” The corners of her eyes grew wet. “He has been accused of maiestas.”
A cold wind blew against Titus’s back and rushed around the two of them. The sun had long left its central place in the sky, covering the forest in darkness and providing shade to any bandit’s activities. He could slit her throat. He could do it now, here, with only a cluster of banyan trees to watch her blood spill.
“I know he was good to you. He loved you like a son.” Fat tears rolled down her cheeks. “If his guidance meant anything to you, please, I beg you.”
“Be quiet.” He lowered the sicae and cursed under his breath. Trust that man to interfere with his post-legion life. “Like a son, hmmm?”
The woman’s hands wrapped themselves around her neck, as if to check the flesh remained intact. “I swear it.” She gestured to the packs Titus still held over his shoulder.
“Please take them, I can buy others.”
“Save these for someone else.” He swung the sacks onto the ground beside her. “Your father will be on trial. Have you spoken to a rhetorician yet?”
She shook her head.
“Come with me.” He clenched his fists. And here he was, helping the general once again. “There is someone you should meet.”
Flavia watched the orator wave his arms and shake his head. If only she could hear what the two men were saying at the end of the hall.
Titus placed one hand on his belted tunic and the other rested against one of the wall posts, listening to what the older noble said. The rhetorician, Avitus, shook the folds of his plain white toga as he continued to preach. His upper-brow knitted together while he spoke.
Avitus finally met Flavia’s stare. Caught. She gazed down at her hands, her cheeks flushed. Perhaps it was too advantageous to be true; perhaps he had no intention of helping her and her father.
The gentle tapping of the men’s sandals against the wooden floorboards stepped across the room until they stood before her. When Flavia looked up, the hazel eyes of the elderly orator were kind.
“Titus has told me you said your father was set up by Antonius. I know him to be a wicked man.” He pulled out a chair and sat next to Flavia. The flames of the fire crackled behind them, warming her hopes as he continued. “I will do my best at the trial to vouch for his loyalty to the emperor.”
She almost reached out her arms and embraced the man. Instead, she kept her smile restrained and nodded. “Thank you. My father and I are forever in your debt.”
“Thank Titus for recruiting my services.” He exchanged a look with the bandit. “This will be a difficult trial for him as well.”
Flavia’s gaze drifted toward him. He stared at the floor beneath their feet as if it was the most fascinating sight since the last Saturnalia. His face appeared impassive, almost as if he did not hear Avitus’s words.
The soldier scrambled to place his organs back into his stomach.
Titus rammed his sword underneath his opponent’s iron armor again, mangled intestines spilling out and around his sword. The stench of blood and filth filled his nostrils.
Cavalry rushed past him as other barbarians slashed at the horse’s legs before the swing of the soldier’s sword could reach them. The left wing of extended cavalry began to guide enemy stragglers back into the battle, one after another, as the enemy soldiers tried to fight them off with fatal silver. Swords clashed as red Roman capes swished to the sound of throats jaggedly ripped from Dacian bodies.
He adjusted his helmet and marched forward. Two steps. Another barbarian swung at him with an edged spear. Titus snapped the stick and swiped his sword against the man’s neck.
Blood spurted, spraying deep red into the air. The barbarian’s head rolled down the grassy hill.
Titus angled his body toward the cry of another challenger. He launched the bloodied sword into his enemy’s stomach. Enemy. The metallic smell filled the air once more as the soldier fell to the ground. An enemy of whom? For what?
Above the field force stood General Flavius and his escort. He took a high ground on a narrow strip of land above the ranks of soldiers. His back stood straight as he watched the scene from his horse, several military legates and tribunes surrounding him.
Titus felt his chest tighten. Then another flash of metal caught his eye and aimed itself on a straight path for his neck…
He sat upright in bed, his chest heaving as he gasped for breath. Beads of sweat trickled down his brow and back, his limbs otherwise paralyzed.
He scanned his surroundings. Glass bottles, bronze pots, and wool blankets were tucked away in the corner of the room. The memories of arriving at his friend’s home returned to him. This was no battle. He was safe; this was safe.
He shut his eyes, clenching fistfuls of the wool blanket in his hands. If only shutting out the anguished cries of dying barbarians and the gutting squelch of metal sliding into flesh were as easy to distance himself from. It was like a thick cord had tied him to the past, tethering him to the ground whenever he felt ready enough to stand.
Titus swung his legs over one side of the bed and grabbed a nearby candle holder. He held up the light as he crossed into the darker corridor of Avitus’s home and walked toward the central room.
A figure was already hunched over on one of the benches. It was the girl, her hair shaken out from her pallas and her stola disheveled as she let the fabric hang loose about her arms. She turned her head at the sound of Titus’s footsteps.
Ah, she had already seen him. He stepped forward and rested the candle on the table beside her.
“Why did you not continue to serve him?” Her voice sounded so small, so unlike the brave baritone the general had.
Jupiter, the girl might as well have placed him on trial. “I asked to leave the legion and he accepted my resignation.”
“Why?” She tucked a stray blond curl behind her ear. “If you are all right with answering, of course.”
Because the barbarians were often defenseless. Because the army turned honest individuals into nothing but a series of obedient maniples. Because the soldiers were treated as replaceable shards of glass to be flung at whatever frontiers remained.
He still remembered marching back toward Rome, passing through villages with the strange sensation of representing a warning. Conquered barbarian children stared at him with hollow expressions. Had he been the one to kill their father, they seemed to implore him.
“Your father always reminded us that we fought for the glory of Rome. We fought for Emperor Domitian.” Titus rubbed the sweat from his palms on the ends of his tunic. Ten years. He had been conscripted into the army at fifteen and given the general ten years of his life. He fought every battle he had no wish to fight. He had woken up and realized he had been living a life he had no wish to live.
“And you did! Why would you choose to leave such a glorious profess…”
“After you have hacked off both arms and legs of a man who seconds before stood whole before you, begging on his knees in garbled Latin about his young wife and newborn child, nothing more than a broken spear in his hand to defend himself, then you tell me about the glory of our army.” Titus stood up from the table and headed toward his room, welcoming the cloak of darkness for once.
Pema Donyo is the author of young adult and historical romance novels. She is also a coffee-fueled college student by day and a creative writer by night. She currently lives in sunny Southern California, where any temperature less than 70 degrees is freezing and flip-flops never go out of season. Visit her online at http://pemadonyo.wordpress.com or find her on Twitter @PemaDonyo.