AD 190: When a fever ravages her father’s fort and kills her family, Livia has to leave Britannia behind and make a new home for herself in Rome. Lost in a world of grief, she finds little delight in the glittering capital of the empire. Nothing can penetrate the grey fog of her grief—except for the cool blue eyes of the slave Leontius, a barbarian warrior, a former gladiator, a man she ought to fear. And yet, she cannot help but crave his touch, even though he is an enemy of Rome; even though, should he ever manage to flee, he would unleash the anger of his tribe upon the border of the empire.
Afterwards, Livia could never remember these first few weeks in Rome clearly. She slept a lot, and when she was awake, her Aunt Floria tried to cheer her up in her own fashion.
She was certain that Livia would want a few more clothes. Surely that would be great fun, wouldn’t it? And truly, her husband had enough money and would not mind in the least if Livia bought as many clothes as she liked.
But Livia didn’t want to buy any clothes.
Once she let her aunt persuade her to accompany her to buy fabrics. The crowds and the noise and the sheer size of the city nearly overwhelmed Livia. And those myriad streets! Streets, streets and houses and stone wherever you looked. She felt as if she had been cast in the Cretan labyrinth and any moment she would be ripped apart by the Minotaur.
Aunt Floria tried to interest her in fine wool for a new stola. But what did she need a woolen dress for, in a country where even in springtime, the weather was warmer than the summers back at home in Britannia?
Ah, but Vindulum and Britannia were no longer home, Livia reminded herself. Home was here now, in this warm, loud place. In this city, where the noise never died down. A city that stank from the heat and from too many people; a city where everything was so busy it made her head swim.
She would never be able to go back to that open, windy place she had called home for more than half her life. She would never see Vindulum again.
Desperation swept over her like a dark wave.
Valiantly she fought against its power. She couldn’t give in to the desperation, not here, not in the middle of a busy shop, with her aunt by her side.
Livia’s hand crept to the armring she wore around her right upper arm, seeking comfort from the old, battered gold that had been handed down through her family for generations. A love token, a promise of honor and respect and faithfulness to be given by the eldest son to the woman he would take to wife. It had belonged to Livia’s mother and to her grandmother before her, and had he survived, the ring would have gone to her little brother, the only son in the family.
Perhaps it should have gone into the grave with her mother and father, but just before her mother had slipped into unconsciousness, she had taken the ring from her own arm and had given it to Livia. “For…for remembrance. All the…women before you. For strength and courage,” her mother had whispered, the last words she would ever speak to Livia.
And so the armring now spanned Livia’s upper arm. According to family lore, it had been during the time of the Gallic Wars that one of their ancestors had first given this ring to the woman he loved, a woman from the barbarian tribes. It was supposedly the top part of his signet ring that was set between the spirals of the golden snake that formed the armring itself.
The inside of the ring was worn as smooth as silk—a testimony to the many years it had graced the arms of Livia’s ancestors. As she clutched the battered gold, she could almost feel the strength of the women who had worn the ring before her seep into her.
She rubbed her thumb over the head of the snake, and her desperation slowly subsided and left behind a dull ache.
She watched as her aunt let the wools be and settled on buying her some silk for a new stola. “Not the very thin kind, mind,” Aunt Floria sniffed. She held up a piece of silk so fine that it rippled over her arm like water. “Some women supposedly wear something like this to entice their husbands because the weave is so fine it makes them look nude. But I say that’s the most shockingly vulgar thing!”
She chose another fabric—still finer than anything Livia had ever seen—instead. “And some linen,” she told the shopkeeper. “The bleached one.” She threw Livia a glance. “We’ll have to do something about your tunics, too, my dear. Such a coarse weave! It is quite shocking!”
Livia let her buy whatever she wished, and later, when they had returned to her uncle’s house, she stood quite still as a slave took her measurements. As the woman’s hands whispered over her, Livia remembered Eunomia, who had taken care of her since Livia was a little girl. Like her family, like most of her father’s slaves, Eunomia, too, had fallen to the fever.
Livia closed her eyes.
Nobody is left. Nobody but me…
Oh, it hurt. It hurt so much it seemed easier to spend her days in her room instead of joining Aunt Floria in the living room and having her worry about her.
Days slowly became weeks, and while Livia would still spend most of her time sitting somewhere very quietly, she also became more familiar with the rhythms of the household. Her uncle was almost never at home, but attended business and political matters in the heart of Rome. Her aunt, meanwhile, thirsted for amusements and entertainment. Aunt Floria liked it when one of the household slaves played pretty music for her. She liked the theater and the races and the gladiatorial games. She thought that the sea battles staged in the old naumachia were the greatest spectacle imaginable, but sadly, sea battles were in a decline, and now everybody was simply wild about the chariot races. And they did quite look like the old heroes, these charioteers, and how exciting it was when the hooves of the horses whirled up the sand, and the sweat glinted on the men’s muscles!
Aunt Floria also liked going to the baths to meet with friends and to exchange the latest gossip. She always came back from these outings in a chirpy mood, which made Livia even more acutely aware of her own misery. She felt ashamed that she was such a bad guest, and she would try—so very hard—to take an interest in the daily life of her uncle’s household. Yet it was difficult to feel an interest in anything when the sadness was weighing down her very bones.
One morning, when she had spent almost a month in Rome, she was shaken out of her reveries by her aunt’s excited shouts. A moment later Aunt Floria burst into her room. “Oh, my dear! It is the most exciting thing ever!” She beamed at Livia. “You must come and see. I insist upon it!” She held out her hand. “Come, come.”
Livia let herself be dragged from her room to the gallery that surrounded one of the house’s inner courtyards.
“It is the best surprise,” Aunt Floria said. “Truly, I have the best of husbands! Look! Look!” She pointed.
There in the courtyard stood a man, surrounded by two of the male household slaves, his hands bound. He wore a rough, sleeveless tunic that clung to his muscular frame and left the brand on his left shoulder on clear display.
At the women’s approach he raised his head, and Livia found herself staring into the coldest blue eyes she had ever seen. That cold blue gaze was, she thought numbly, such a curious contrast to his hair, which shone in the sunlight like burnished gold.
Despite the warmth of the day, a shiver raced down her spine.
“Isn’t he glorious?” her aunt whispered. “I saw him in the arena when we last went to the games, and I knew from the first that I simply must have him.—Yoo-hoo!” She waved to the man and didn’t seem to notice the hostile expression that flickered over his lean, narrow face nor the subtle tightening of his lips.
“Marcellus told me not to put my hopes up,” Aunt Floria continued, “because surely the ludus would not simply part with such a splendid warrior. Germanic, you know. They are so delightfully barbarian! And Marcellus didn’t tell me anything, the bad man, can you imagine? Not a peep about his negotiations with the man who runs the ludus because he wanted to surprise me. And what a lovely surprise this is!” She gave Livia a huge smile. “Isn’t he the best of husbands?”
Without waiting for an answer, she called to one of the men in the courtyard, “Timon! Clean him up and then bring him to me.” And to the bound man himself, “Oh, I’m so glad to have you here.”
She watched as he was led away, and then took Livia’s arm. “Come, my dear. You can help me decide what name I shall give him. In the arena they called him Adelar the Barbarian, which is, of course, a terribly fitting name—for the arena anyway, but I don’t think it would suit me very well. I was thinking of something more…well, more elegant. Something like Charinus. Or perhaps Demeas. How do you like the sound of that?”