The Effing Book

A novel of Roman Britain and Ireland

The History Heist

Cultural heritage, here defined as the elements that constitute what the general public can agree upon as uniquely ‘theirs’, is a tricky entity. Really, if you think about it, what does it even mean to be Irish, or Roman, whether in the third century or even today? In what context are the Irish ‘Irish’, and the Romans ‘Roman’? Would that be in opposition to what is not … Irish or Roman? While it may seem unequivocal to define a ‘Roman’ as a citizen of the Roman empire in the context of this story set in 210/211 CE, the jury is still out on what at the time defined ‘Irish’, since Hibernian was a label and an experiential filter the Romans applied to the Irish, and what the Irish called themselves at the time is anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t, I guarantee you in no uncertain terms, ‘Irish’. 

Cultural appropriation

For that matter, who am I to even attempt to write about the Irish? I’m not, to the best of my knowledge, Irish. My paternity is a question mark. I’m a Danish citizen. I’ve never been to Ireland, not that it isn’t on the top of my bucket list in these COVID-19 lockdown times when even travelling to Copenhagen is an ethically questionable proposition. 

Yet here I am, submerged in my free time in academic papers on Iron Age Ireland, reading bubble-bursting books I bought on Amazon, editing and rewriting a novel set in Iron Age Ireland. I have no right at all to write anything resembling a historical novel set in County Wicklow, describing a culture clash between Imperial Rome and Ireland. 

By rights, I should stick to the Norse and call it a day, if not for the fact that a) other, far better writers than I are doing just that, and b) it would bore me to tears. I may have a Viking story in me, but not yet. 

Other stories are elbowing their way in, and of them all – and they are many – this one takes precedence, shrieking in proto-Gaelic just below my level of consciousness: Tell THIS story.

Many, many writers have written about ancient Rome who aren’t remotely Italian. That is not to imply those novels aren’t historically valid, impeccably researched or highly entertaining. My favorites count Colleen McCollough’s First Man in Romeseries, Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series, and Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels among them. My own steep, slippery slide into history geekdom began with Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. If they could do it, why can’t I? 

Let me be as crystal-clear as I can. I’m emphatically not writing the definitive ‘this was Ireland in 210 CE’-story. I’m not telling any Irish what their beyond-obscure Iron Age heritage even is. I’m writing a novel. Full stop. A novel that happens to be set in ancient Ireland and Roman Britain, a novel that Could Be a Thing. That’s it. That’s all. 


Of all the many, many books I’ve read, one overarching book series in particular inspired me to write my own. It wasn’t precisely the novels of Morgan Llewellyn I was reading at the time, although I enjoyed them immensely, and even thought – famous last words – I could do that. It was a series of books gifted to me from my mother, a prescient witch until the day she died – Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s Keltiad series. This ‘Celts-in-space’ saga had me from page one. Those books ignited a bonfire of passion for Celtic mythology that really  did rearrange my mental furniture. They also told me not a little about my mother. She  knew things. Her eldest daughter included.

The (depressing) facts, please

Since I resurrected my story from several stone-dead laptops, I’ve worked my way through several books to back up my research, and went back to other ones I still had. This is where I bang my head on my keyboard and despair. 

Imperial Rome is documented all over, through period sources such as Dio Cassius and via archaeology. Roman Britain is not at all a mystery. In recent years, astonishing finds concerning the brutal campaigns of Septimius Severus in Scotland in 208-211 CE have come to light, including the massive army camps at Newstead and Carpow. Vindolanda, York and Chester have or have had ongoing excavations that in some cases have brought new stories to light. 

When I began reconstructing the Effing Book, it was very important I got my facts right. Which meant starting from scratch, rewriting the context, changing elements in my story to fit the time frame, the context, the overall arc. Fiction or not, no one was going to be able to point a finger at my research and say I got it wrong.

 My sorrow to say, my research ran away with me to such an extent, I became insufferable, even in my writing. See how smart I am and how much I know. Therefore, I’m writing all of that out. The best research is seamless, imparting facts into the storyline so you never even guess they’re there. 

Having said that, it also means coming to terms with some unpalatable facts. Slavery. Pedophilia. Prostitution. Sex trafficking. Imperialism. Oppression. Murder. And that’s just the Romans. 

It’s not my place to apologize for any of them. The Roman Empire was a  very different world, and in order to be true to history, has to be  portrayed to be different, not portrayed to apologize for a past we’re unable to change because we find it distasteful, to say the least. 

Plastic history

Iron Age Ireland, on the other hand, is … a lacuna. The actual finds are so few and so ambiguous, they can be interpreted to mean anything or nothing. Archaeological digs have often sought to prove a continuous cultural insular Celtic heritage or to substantiate myth and mythology, and therefore a historical bias. Evidence suggests that the population of Ireland underwent a severe decline in the Iron Age. We’re not sure why.

Likewise, Patrick W. Joyce’s  A Social History of Ancient Ireland, one of my own indispensible sources for setting and context, was, in effect, a social history of  medieval Ireland, and he likely misinterpreted many of his sources. All the Irish names and tribes I’ve used in the novel have their origins in the  Onomasticum Goidelicum and the  Annals of the Four Masters among other places, and as such are emphatically medieval, not remotely Iron Age. What evidence there is indicates that proto-Gaelic was very, very different than Old Irish, in some respects more akin to Latin than Gaelic. Had I tried to impart the flavor of those names and tribes as they might have been, I would likely have lost any readers I could possibly aspire to, so I compromised. It was a hard but a necessary choice. Recognition was more important.

I have the great fortune to live in a country with many, many Iron Age finds, whether they’re bog bodies or actual reconstructed communities, and these have been my factual – such as they are – references for the daily lives of the Irish characters in the story, with some adaptations. 

The good news? Novels are not representations of historical fact, nor should they be. They’re subjective representations of interpreted facts, and because they’re fiction, we authors don’t have to annotate a single thing or source. We can bend history any which way we choose, and we should. Which frees us up for far more interesting things.

Such as telling a story, even this one, as best we can. Call it the History Heist. For entertainment purposes only.

The Saturnalia Edition

 – some long-overdue thoughts on the fate of the Effing Book

It was recently brought to my attention that I have been sitting on my creative capital for far too long. My creative capital is – among other things – the Effing Book. 

A friend and former Resident Buttkicker has slowly but surely been sending readers to this blog and its attendant Facebook page. I can tell he has indeed by the recent stats of both of those. 

The Here & Now

Bolstered by a national lockdown/Christmas break/sheer boredom, I decided to have a look at the current state of the Effing Book. After turning my garret upside down, I located ALL my files, some of which date back to 2002. Research files, excerpts, PDF files and twelve of my original thirteen chapters. They were copied over to my present laptop and both backup drives posthaste. I’ll be getting back to that.

In 2005, serendipity brought Volker Bach and Stiofán McCamhalghaidh into my life. Volker became my fact-checker for all the Roman elements in the story, and Stiof for the Irish elements. They pulled no punches. I was sent back to the empty page and into an awful lot of books, and rewrote the first four chapters entirely. Those are the excerpts you’ll find here. 

For the past five days, I’ve been raking my words over the coals. I came to discover that chapter 4 had been corrupted beyond repair, but I had a backup PDF that wasn’t. (Phew!) 

I also discovered that those four rewritten chapters contained every bad writing habit you can imagine; passive verbs, too many commas, too much exposition and above all things else, far too much “see-how-smart-I-am-and-how-much-research-I’ve-done”.

In 2020, I may be a published author of little repute, but I know enough to realize that this will never do. Therefore, I decided to edit what I have from scratch, which is what I’m doing now, easing my way back into the arms of an old story that maybe, just maybe, might become a Thing. Commas are mercilessly slaughtered, plotholes filled in, and showing off has been banned. Whole pages quake in fear of the backspace key. Slowly but surely, the story I always wanted to tell is coming to life again. 

Future music

I may be a Dane, but I always saw the Effing Book as a uniquely Irish story. Roman novels are thick on the ground, and I’ve read many of them. Yet I never read a story that combined the Roman world of 210 CE with pagan Ireland, the Ireland of legends and tales, the Eíre that existed before everything; Christianity, the Normans, the English. 

Which is why this story needs to get out into the world. I have a trilogy planned if I’m lucky, and they don’t write themselves. 

To that end, I’ve joined the Inkwell Writers of Ireland. A profile page is in the works, with links to this page. I’m told it’s a famous scouting ground for literary agents in search of fresh talent. I can hope. 

Here’s what I can also hope for: readers. Readers who comment, who interact, who argue the history with me. Readers who spread the word, who share the page, this blog, their sense of wonder/outrage/curiosity.

That would be you. 

More historical madness later? 

Photo: Fresco, the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. 

A Day in the Life of a Hostage

Since becoming a hostage, Diarmait mac Ciarán had never had it so good in his short and fairly miserable life. As he lay in a large, comfortable bed reflecting on his situation, in the best of Láegaire’s guesthouses, he had to admit that getting caught in a drunken cattle raid had been one of the best things that happened to him, not that much good ever had. Not with Ciarán mac Broccan as his father.

What he and a few of his father’s men had been thinking that night two moons before, he could hardly remember. They had been rummaging around in a cow barn one night when his father had been away, and had come across an old and apparently forgotten full barrel of mead, so strong it had made his eyes water to drink it.

Some time and not a little mead later, one of the men had begun mumbling about one of Láegaire’s prized bulls, or was it cows in calf, out on their summer pasture beyond the oak wood? In any case, it had been far enough away from his father’s borderlands that it had taken most of the short summer night to get there. The live willow fencing surrounding the cattle had taken the better part of his tunic, but the cows were there, right enough, trailed by their suckling calves. Healthy, happy cows, grown sleek and plump with the rich summer grass, cows without hoof rot, cows with udders full of sweet, delicious milk for their calves. Cows. Milk. Cream. Butter. Meat. Leather. Theirs for the taking, and all that remained was to slip the halters they had brought around their heads and…

So went the plan. They had not taken into account that quite so many cows were in calf, and they had had only a vague idea what hard work would be involved in getting all those cows and calves back to his father’s land. Diarmait himself had figured not at all on slipping and sliding on the dew-drenched grass, trying to put a halter on one highly unbiddable cow that showed no interest in cooperating. Just as he was finally getting a halter on the wretched beast, taking great care not to get in the way of those sharp horns, he trod in a cowpat, lost his grip on the halter and twisted his ankle trying to regain his footing. He found himself sitting in a fresh cowpat, ankle throbbing, his men laughing, and the cows…Gods; the cows were slowly retreating, trotting off to another part of the pasture, their outlines growing sharper in the blue predawn light. He had heard a twig snap behind him, then another. Just as he turned his head toward the sound, Mathgamain and about a score of Láegaire’s men had emerged from the shadowy fences, spears pointed, swords drawn.

Diarmait rolled over in bed, smiling at the memory. He knew Mathgamain, knew him from several crossroads fairs and Lughnasa festivals at Dun Aillin, but it would be fair to say he did not know him well. They were around the same age, Mathgamain being a year or two older. Mathgamain was, he reflected, the son Ciarán should have had, a loud-mouthed rogue who won all contests and chased most girls with equal ease. Nothing at all like Diarmait mac Ciarán.

“Do you know,” Mathgamain had drawled in a casual, offhand tone, “my father has a very particular punishment for cattle thieves. Usually, he hangs their skulls beneath his roof thatch. After skinning and boiling them, naturally.”

The men behind him laughed.

He beckoned a torch closer, and waved it in front of Diarmait’s face, peering closer.

“Lugh’s beard! It’s the son of the Badger himself! Who would have thought the Moccu Garba would send their finest to steal his cattle? Or to find Diarmait mac Ciarán sitting in a fresh pile of cow dung, trying to steal our cows? Diarmait mac Ciarán! Sitting in a cow pat!” He started to chuckle. The chuckle evolved into a laugh, which grew to a full-blown fit of hilarity so contagious, even Diarmait’s men could not help joining in, and soon, even Diarmait could no longer defend himself against that laugh. It was funny, even as he felt a combination of dew and dung beginning to seep in through his tunic into the seat of his breeches.

Once their fit of mirth had subsided, Mathgamain wasted no time in taking action.

“I’m sure your skull would look particularly fine, Diarmait mac Ciarán, but it would not be the lawful thing to do.” He motioned to his men.

“Consider yourself a hostage as of this moment. You would be worth far more to my father so; especially given that thorn in his side that is your father.” He reached down, and pulled Diarmait to his feet.

“Bind his hands.”

Diarmait was appalled. “Surely, there is no need to bind me? I promise you, I shall behave with all due respect and not run away.”

“Not run away? But of course, you would never do such a thing!” Mathgamain laughed again. “We of the Laighean Eoghan are here to take you to my father and show you how a proper king rules his people, and how a people are properly ruled, even those – ” he gave a pointed glance to Diarmait’s ragged trail of men – “who try to steal Eoghan cattle!” He considered a moment.

“Now, you might behave, at that.” Mathgamain shrugged. “Or, being of the Moccu Garba, you might not, and run away. I shall take no chances, either way. Bind his hands, and hobble his feet.”

So Diarmait became a bargaining tool for Láegaire. He was hauled through the pastures, past far too many sleek cows to ever steal, his feet hobbled just enough to walk and his hands tied behind his back, acutely aware of the reeking patch of wet on the seat of his breeches, the dull throb and ache of his ankle and the sharp point of a spear in his back as they made their way back to Láegaire’s dun, across the common lands and through the orchards, past kitchen gardens, stables, stores, and the  houses of his household, and up the long road that wound up the enormous cliff Láegaire’s hall commanded, the new reed thatch of the roof gleaming like gold in the first morning sun.

Diarmait sat up in bed and threw back the coverlet, running his fingers through his

unplaited hair, and reached for his breeches, pulling them on.

Thanks to the King’s daughter, that ankle had been healed well. And there, he thought to himself, was his problem.

Lassarfhína. They all wanted Lassarfhína. Even Diarmait. A face and form to scorch and burn the eyes of any who saw her, she had, and a tongue to scorch the ears of any who thwarted her. Only her father was immune, and that cursed, unsettling ban drui of Láegaire’s. But every one of Láegaire’s men, from Gobbán, his temporary champion now that Aed had died, down to his own miserable self, gave her long looks and sweet words whenever she happened by.

Not that it changed a thing. She smiled, or laughed, and went on her way, and all any of them could do was dream. Except for Gobbán, who had had the glory of taking her into the orchard at Beltane, and who refused, much to his friends’ consternation, to speak a word about it.

He tied his boots, splashed his face and hands with water from the basin, and began untangling his hair with his comb. The Eoghan could not be expected to know the Moccu Garba braid.

In all else, however, the Eoghan knew so much the Moccu Garba had forgotten, if they had indeed ever known. The care of cattle, from bulls and steers to suckling calves, the herding of sheep, reading the land for plowing and sowing, for fencing and building – all this, and so very much more, they knew. What they knew, what Láegaire himself knew, they – and he – took great pains and greater care to teach Diarmait.

For the first time since he could remember, Diarmait felt important and valued. For the first time in his young life, Diarmait felt not like a bitter disappointment to his father and the Moccu Garba, but like someone who…mattered.

The Eoghan had made him realize what his own people had forgotten.

They had forgotten to laugh, or his father had made them forget. The Eoghan had never forgotten.

He pulled his tunic over his head and tied off his braid with a leather thong. There were fences to be repaired this morning, and he was needed to help.

He was needed.

Becoming the hostage of the Eoghan had changed his life.

He had never had it so good.


A Sudden Awakening

Lucius had fallen asleep. It had been a long, if delightful, night after some long and rather less delightful days. So, as Astyanax had arranged meetings, handled dispatches and couriers and attended to the petitioners in his office, and people had milled in and out the doors, Lucius, seated on that treacherously comfortable couch, had felt his eyes grow heavier by the minute, and not even the babble of Briton and Latin or the occasional creaks and groans of the armor Arrius’ bodyguards were wearing could keep him awake. The noise faded, his eyes closed, and he nodded off.

What woke him up a short while later was a sudden, dramatic hush. In an instant, the background noise had faded into nothing, the office going all too quiet all too abruptly, and he opened his eyes.

To be punched in the gut by what he saw, and immediately, he was very wide awake.

It was the Emperor. Swathed in a long, embroidered tunic and a thick woolen toga despite the warm day outside, thumping an ebony cane across the floor as he progressed, aided by a slave on the other side and trailed by two more slaves carrying wax tablets, there he stood.

Gods, he was short. Lucius was not much above average height himself, but Severus was far shorter than either his statues or his reputation. But there could be no mistake about his authority or his presence. It literally commanded your attention and noone in Astyanax’ office could look away if they had wanted to.

Lucius suddenly had an irresistible urge to pull up his socks, comb his hair, straighten his tunic, and shout “Ave Imperator!”

A pair of olive-black eyes swept around the room taking everything in, from Astyanax frantically trying to regain his composure, to the many awed people in the office, and even, for a brief breathless moment, to Lucius and his taciturn bodyguards, before they turned back to Astyanax.

“Postumianus is in his office?” Even now, Severus had never lost his accent and that staccato, guttural undertone of Punic.

It was not a question, but even so, Astyanax nearly fell on his face as he fawned.

“Yes, Augustus.”

“And the senior tribune of the XX Victrix, Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, is in there with him?”

“Yes, Augustus.”

“Good! I came just in time, then. Open the doors.” Severus stood as straight as the cane, the slave and his gout would allow, and motioned to the two guards who stood there.

They already had their hands on the door latch. Lucius had to suppress a laugh. Such authority! And he was tiny!

“Augustus, if I could just announce you, I’m sure that Postumianus…”

Astyanax never had a chance. Severus merely glared in his direction, and Astyanax withered like a frost-blighted vine. With a flick of his hand, he dismissed the two clerks behind him. The doors opened silently on their hinges, and with immense dignity for such a small frame, Severus walked inside, to what reaction Lucius couldn’t even imagine.

The doors closed with an ominous click, the guards resumed their impervious expression, and Astyanax buried his head in his hands.

Then, the full implications of what had just happened hit Lucius in the gut. Gaius was in there. Carrot. In that office. With the Emperor.


A Father’s Regrets

The nightmares were always much worse in Rome. Whether it was something about the perpetual noise of carts and traffic rattling through the streets below from dusk till dawn, or something in the very air itself, some bad air hovering around the seven hills like a malevolent fog, his nightmares were always that much worse whenever he was in Rome.

They were always the same dream, or different variations of it. His son Gaius was in some mortal danger, about to be killed or else summarily executed for some transgression or other. Somehow, the unseen assassin’s hand was always stayed, and somehow he always seemed to wake up right before the sword descended, the knife plunged in, his heart pounding in his chest, and that sickening, dizzying sense of displacement, disorientation and loss that knotted hard in the pit of his stomach before he remembered where and who he was.

Now, while the city was being gilded in the east by the first rays of the rising sun and Rome was preparing for a festival day at the Roman Games and at the theatres, he was calm again, able to breathe again. Down below, the city was stirring, the last carts and wagons heading for the gates in time for the curfew.

But up here on the Caelian Hill, it was peaceful, the garden outside fragrant with the late summer roses, blushing in the early morning light. The lemon trees Nessa had loved so much were blooming, and the heady combination of roses and lemon blossoms would surely make any person happy simply to breathe and be alive.

He still had yet to get used to this house. For centuries, the Arrii had lived outside the pomerium, down by the banks of the Tiber overlooking the Field of Mars in a huge, shabby villa, until Quintus, his profligate older brother, had suddenly come into a fortune that had enabled him to buy this exquisite gem perched high on the Caelian Hill, with a garden of its own and a direct line from the Claudian Aqueduct.

His clients, always in evidence whenever he came to Rome, had already come and gone, dismissed with words, promises or small purses with a few coins to spend for the Games and the festival. Once they were gone, he had retreated to his favorite spot in the house, a two story vine-covered portico overlooking the garden and the teeming city down below, the Flavian Amphitheatre looming impossibly large to the northeast, flags streaming in the breeze. He had planned to attend the new show of the Oresteia at Pompey’s theatre, since the great Athenian actor Nicias was in town for the Games, and the great Nicias was not to be missed.

But even despite the sun, the view, the coming pleasures of Nicias’ theatrical troupe, or the fragrant lemon blossoms and ripening grapes on the vines embracing the columns, Marcus Arrius Nerva was in a melancholy frame of mind. He sat on the balustrade, his back against a graceful Ionic column, and looked down at the small object in his hand.

It was a wooden toy soldier of a Greek hoplite, carved with great care, spear at the ready, the tiny sword broken off long ago and never repaired. Faint traces of yellow and red paint remained on the tunic and the helmet plume, but it was obvious the little hoplite had seen many battles on the nursery floor, reenacting the siege of Troy, the battle of Thermopylae, or the final stand of the Gauls at Alesia. It had belonged to his son Gaius, stored with its fellows in a forgotten wicker basket in the nursery at Cumae, and for reasons Marcus Arrius had never knew, it had somehow found its way into his pocket and all the way to Rome, where he had rediscovered it this morning.

Gaius. Nightmares. The letter he had sent to Severus back in July from Cumae, when the ache in the marrow of his bones had become almost too much to bear and not even the august Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” could help. It was all the same thing. A man with only one child, one son, would always feel naked and exposed, vulnerable and bereft, once that son had gone away, and Jupiter!, Gaius had been gone these six years now, away at the edge of the world in Britannia, punished for a transgression he had never even committed.

Had he ever told Gaius just how much he loved him and marveled at him? Had he ever told him just how proud his Tata had been, that June day eleven years ago, when they had gone together in a festive procession of clients, family and friends to the temple of Jupiter, his son towering over him already, trying to get used to his new toga and his new status as a man, eager to leave his childhood behind? How thrilled he had been when Gaius had been appointed senior tribune of his father’s old legion, the XX Valeria Victrix?

Well, he had now, six years too late, when Lucius Sabius had come to inform him of his departure for Britannia, and had carried off the letter that said much of what he, Marcus Arrius Nerva, should have said six years ago.

Instead, father and son had parted at odds, both in their own way stunned by grief and loss. Nessa was gone, the little sister they had all anticipated was gone and all that remained was that black and endless abyss of emptiness Nessa had left behind. All they had had was each other, then, and it should have been enough.

But Marcus Arrius had been in a panic, a panic that his precarious future, too, might be ripped away before its time, and had his son’s planned wedding pushed forward, eager to see some assurance, some guarantee that the Arrii would continue through time. So the Gods had chosen to punish both of them in their sorrow, father and son alike, with Sulpicia, the young and deceptively sweet-faced fruit of a very, very old – and very blighted – family tree.

Six years on, he could still feel a wrench in his gut at the thought. He, who had managed to survive the insanities of Commodus, the civil wars that followed, even his own older brother’s fall from grace, who knew to the width of a cat’s whisker when the winds would shift and Nemesis would divert her attention to where he stood, had not managed to see through Sulpicia’s pretty face and charming wiles. Understandably enough neither had Gaius, who saw only a mass of black curls, arresting blue eyes and a form any young man would have found alluring, especially since she would soon be his alone. Her dowry was large, her lineage patrician and her family delighted, at least to their faces. The Arrii were wealthy, well-connected, nearly as old as the Sulpicii themselves, and Gaius was generally considered one of the best young men undergoing training on the Field of Mars. He was also, his father had been surprised to realize, a very handsome young man.

Precisely why the eminent Sulpicii had been so delighted became apparent at the wedding celebration dinner. It had been an elaborate affair, attended by most of Roman society, not because Marcus Arrius had any delusions that he or his son was that important, but simply because there had been nothing more worthwhile to do that night.

There she had reclined, the lovely little Sulpicia, surrounded by friends, family, clients of the Sulpicii and Arrii, and every delicacy the Sulpician chef could pull out of his tunic sleeve, a garland of violets on her hair, a definite green tinge to her face. Gaius had been concerned, making sure she was diligently attended by her slaves, trying to tempt her with the licker fish, the honey-roasted dormice, the jellied eels in wine sauce. He had been proud of his son that night. Noone thought anything at all amiss, suspected nothing wrong. It had all been tossed aside as a young woman’s understandable nervousness at the occasion and seeing her new husband in a formal setting for the first time, up until that fatal moment when Sulpicia, at the taking of the omens, had become violently ill all over an elaborate pastry sculpture of Venus.

Oh, he could laugh at it now, as indeed he had after, one late night when he and his best friend Dio decided to live it up a little and do their worst on one of his father’s finest amphorae. But when it happened, it was yet another blow to his dignitas and his status as Gaius’ father, and yet another crack in an increasingly fractious relationship with his son since Nessa’s death.

Needless to say, the evening had ended in an uproar, Sulpicia packed off to bed with a Greek doctor in attendance; the augur in a state of hysteria at the bad omens – the sheep’s liver had been mottled with spots – and the many guests clucking in anticipation of a good gossip later. Nor had it ended there.

Sulpicia was pregnant, the doctor had discovered, and she wasted no time pointing an accusing hand right at her betrothed, Gaius, claiming he had taken liberties with her at several occasions before the wedding party, had, in fact, been having her in several highly improper ways ever since their families had made it public.

Impossible, of course. Gaius was undergoing his military training on the Field of Mars, which left him no time for dallying, and in any case, they were always heavily chaperoned when they were together. He had been so blind, so blind…

The truth, as always, was even more banal than that elaborate concoction Sulpicia had created with some help from her mother. The simple truth was that Sulpicia’s Greek was far too good for a Roman girl of such noble lineage, so good that her Greek tutor had given her a bellyful of his finest Attic.

Naturally, they were delighted when Marcus Arrius wanted to push the wedding plans forward, pleased that Gaius and Sulpicia had seemed so taken with one another, positively thrilled that it was such a suitable match. Of course. The tutor crucified, the wedding hastened, and nine months later, a baby as a laurel wreath upon the whole happy ending and noone, least of all the notorious gossips of Rome, the wiser. That, at least, had been the plan.

So much for a noble and ancient lineage preserving the true virtues of Roman women.

Sulpicia had been packed off to a family estate in deepest Etruria, and returned to find herself with an infinitely more boring man for a second husband, her second cousin Marcus Terentius Gentianus, the only one who would have her. Gentianus was a tedious, unimaginative senator, with dull and lackluster speeches, but at least he was ambitious. He had his eye on the consulship, and over the next few years with the help of Sulpicia’s family connections at the Palace, had begun to walk the Course of Honor. By now, he was well on his way with a completed pro-praetorship behind him in Hispania Baetica, and had been mentioned several times as candidate for senior consul next year.

He wished them both the best of luck. Really, he did.

Marcus Arrius looked up from the little toy soldier in his lap and out across the garden toward the Flavian Amphitheatre. The Games were a modest affair this year, since the Emperor and his family were still in Britannia, but nevertheless, he had spotted camel leopards and tigers being hauled in yesterday, and Scorax the Thracian would be fighting today, which always brought in the crowds. He had lost his taste for the Games a long time ago. The hot-blooded words of Aeschylus were so much more interesting than the bloody sand of Circus spectacles.

But Gaius…he turned the little soldier over and over in his hands. Gaius had taken the scandal very hard. It had been yet another blow after his mother’s death. Not even Quintus’ intervention had defused Marcus Arrius’ own rage at the whole sordid business, and Quintus Arrius could usually talk a feral dog off a butcher’s cart.

It had finally been agreed that the time had come for Gaius’ military training in earnest, and so he had been packed off to Britannia and Marcus Arrius’ old legion, the XX Valeria Victrix, leaving a void in his father’s life that had become more palpable and painful every day.

It hadn’t ended there. The following year, brother Quintus too was gone, implicated in the messy affairs of Plautianus and his endless fall from the Emperor’s grace, and rather than face the degradation of his entire family, Quintus, his loud, brash, often overbearing but always loved older brother had simply chosen to take his own life, leaving yet another empty space in Marcus Arrius’ life, yet another wax mask for the lararium.

What remained was this house, with its picture galleries, its sculptures, including a small Phidias Apollo, a Praxiteles Venus, and even an authenticated Apelles painting Quintus had found in Syracuse. The marble-veneered walls and floors, the verdant garden, the chairs and beds inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl, the huge citruswood tables, the Lydian portieres, rugs and tapestries, the Alexandrian braziers and censers – all belonged to him now, all so unlike Quintus himself in their restraint and controlled beauty.

At least he had that much. But the Gods knew it wasn’t enough to make up for his son, or his brother.

He was startled when Philo, his steward here in Rome, coughed discreetly at the door.

“Domine, Lucius Cassius has arrived.”

And he had Dio, oldest friend, to take him to the theatre and argue endlessly over the appropriate interpretation of Aeschylus, and whether Nicias’ version was better than the Alexandrian Callimenes’.

Well Dio, thought Marcus Arrius. You fancy yourself a historian. Here’s a story for you, one that you will never tell.

The Policies of Empire

At a godless hour the next morning, Arrius made his way across the bridge to the Palace, trailing a loudly protesting Lucius and two borrowed Batavian bodyguards. Lucius was less than happy to be hauled out of a supremely comfortable bed, and not shy about sharing his unhappiness with anyone else who cared to listen.

Finally, right outside the gates, even Arrius had had enough. He stopped so abruptly, Lucius ran straight into his back and nearly stepped onto his toga.

“Let’s get this straight, sheep. I’m fairly certain I’m going to meet my doom – or at least my death sentence – this morning, and the least you can do is shut up about your lack of sleep and be a true friend and share my misery. If you survive – and you probably will – then you can tell my father exactly how it happened, and if I do, then I will. But I am not facing Postumianus without someone I can trust by my side, and since all my slaves have taken off for Rome, that leaves you. Does that make it better?”

Lucius rolled his eyes.

“It would be better,” he muttered, “if only my penis weren’t so sore…”

Arrius laughed. “Ah, the perils of Iolanthe’s ladies! Don’t worry, it will go away…” He looked toward the gates, and for a moment looked as apprehensive as he felt. Then, he straightened his tunic, adjusted his toga, ran his fingers through his hair one last time, and took a deep breath. Postumianus had only been appointed this past summer, and he didn’t know the man at all, unlike his predecessor Senecio. Better to just get it over with.

He squared his shoulders and straightened his spine. Then, he gave Lucius a long, serious look, so serious that Lucius was startled out of his morning fog.

“I’m glad, Lucius, that             you’re the one beside me.”

“And I’m glad” Lucius answered after a long pause, “that we at least had…this-“his arms spread out to encompass Eboracum and all it contained – “before…”

Arrius sighed. “Before…” Then, he walked through the gates and toward the entrance to the praetorium.

Even at that early hour just after dawn, the praetorium was a beehive of activity, the long hall lined with soldiers and secretaries, slaves and errand runners, petitioners and veterans in every shape, size and origin from all over the Empire.

Nearly at the end of the hallway was a pair of high doors, guarded by two legionaries in full battle gear and two very lethal spears. Arrius came to yet another abrupt halt, stood up even straighter, ran his hands through his hair and took a deep breath. He looked across his shoulder at Lucius.

“Ready, sheep?”

Lucius grinned back. “Never, Carrot!”

“Well, then…dead, alive…” he looked at the legionaries. “Senior tribune of the XX Valeria Victrix Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, for Marcus Junius Faustinus Postumianus, at his request.”

One of the legionaries winked at him, then they both pushed the doors open, and Arrius and Lucius found themselves in the anteroom of Britannia’s governor, where his secretary Astyanax held court behind a desk piled high on either side with tablets, book buckets and scrolls.

The office of the governor of Britannia looked nothing like it had when Senecio had been in charge. Senecio had always been far too busy to smarten up his office, and his Spartan office had reflected his spare, no-nonsense personality. But now, Postumianus was in charge, and Postumianus was anything but Spartan. A Parthian rug covered the vast expanse in front of Astyanax’ desk, a white, highly polished marble that very nearly reflected Astyanax’ Mauritanian features, including a nose no Roman would have been ashamed to bear. There were two opulent chairs in front of his desk with thick blue cushions trimmed in gold braid that matched the tunics of the two slaves who stood at attention by the inner doors. Along the wall was an enormous couch for petitioners, not unlike Iolanthe’s, but much longer and with fewer pillows. The walls were still relatively bare, painted in the simple, red, black and white pattern that could be found throughout the Palace and the praetorium.

Arrius cleared his throat and repeated: “Senior tribune Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus of the XX Valeria Victrix legion for Marcus Junius Faustinus Postumianus, governor of Britannia, at his request.”

For a senior tribune, Astyanax could muster something that looked like a smile, although in his case, the smile had devolved into an unattractive sneer showing very bad teeth.

“Certainly! I’ll let the governor know you’re here” and he indicated the couch against the opposite wall, while he went into Postumianus’ office.

Arrius turned to Lucius. “It might be a while. You might as well make yourself comfortable, because this could be a long morning.”

Lucius shrugged his shoulders. “Do I have anything better to do? Don’t worry about me, Carrot – just come out of that office alive and well.”

They both stood as Astyanax came back. “The governor will see you now, Gaius Arrius.”

Who turned to Lucius, ran his fingers through his hair one last time, straightened his tunic and his toga along his left shoulder, and winked at his friend. Then he turned around and walked across the room and through the doors the guards closed behind him. Lucius settled himself comfortably on the couch, hoping he wouldn’t fall asleep, and prepared himself for a long and boring and possibly fateful morning, while Astyanax buried himself in the pile of documents on his desk. Lucius he completely ignored.

In Postumianus’ office, all traces of Senecio were gone. Gone were the simple wooden tables he had used for his desk and meeting table, and the shelves and cubbyholes for scrolls, wax tablets and book buckets. Instead, everything around Arrius talked loudly and ostentatiously of money and quite a lot of it, from the rug on the floor, the ornate desk and a pair of matching chairs in front of it identical to the ones in Astyanax’ office. There were Athenian candelabra and Alexandrian braziers and a Syrian incense burner or two, expensive Gaulish glassware and embroidered Tyrian purple tapestries hanging on gilded rods. Arrius hated it on sight. In the next moment, he found Postumianus, who stood by his desk beaming like a fat and pampered cat, and saw no reason to change his opinion.

Arrius had by necessity grown used to being at least a head taller than most Romans, but even so, Postumianus was not tall. In his late thirties or early forties, he had made quite a successful career for himself, and had that same sleek, manicured, feline look of so many of the Africans Severus had promoted during his reign.

“Gaius Arrius!” Postumianus gushed, clasping his arm with surprising strength. “Senecio told me so much about you before he left, and I can’t begin to tell you just how much I’ve looked forward to meeting you! Quite a surprise with Cadaracus, eh? Can’t wait to hear about that, either! But please, do sit down.” He gestured toward the chair. “Wine? Mulsum? Water? Perhaps a pastry or two at this hour of the morning?”

“Some water would be fine, thank you.” Arrius seated himself and adjusted his toga, looking every inch the chilly aristocrat.

Postumianus flicked a wrist and sent a slave scurrying out the back door.

“Well, then, Gaius Arrius. You’re here for your discharge as senior tribune of the XX Valeria Victrix, and Galba has given you a very flattering report. It’s on its way to the Senate now. In fact, he had only the highest praise for you, and if I’d never met the man at Luguvallium, I would have been suspicious for that reason alone. Galba doesn’t strike me as much of a flatterer, I have to say.”

Arrius remembered countless occasions when Galba had said many things about him as well as to him, all to the point and none of them flattering.

“He’s not, sir.”

“I didn’t think so. Another thing in your particular case is that Severus has you short-listed as one of the quaestores Augusti, and that’s yet another reason I had to see you for myself. However, I’m sure he shall have plenty to say about that himself later on, and as you know, it’s a short-list, not yet an official appointment. But the main reason you’re here – ” Postumianus stretched in his chair and leaned back, staring Arrius right in the eye – “is simply this: you’re the highest ranking Roman official, military and otherwise, with the longest experience of Britannia, that we currently have. Senecio is gone, the two other senior tribunes of the Britannia legions are fairly recently appointed, and you’ve somehow managed to be here for six years, four of those years on some pretty brutal campaigns, and more importantly, you’ve survived. I can imagine you might have things to say about the Britons, the Caledonians and the Maeatae that could tell us a few things we might need to know. I’m the new man here, so I might need information above and beyond what I can get from official sources. There have been plans underway for some time, to split Britannia into two separate provinces to make it more manageable, but they’re still plans, for now. So…given your experience, what can you tell me about these people that no one else can?”

“I’m not entirely sure how I can help you, sir. I was a tribune for the XX Valeria Victrix at Deva, not a government official stationed here in Eboracum. I should think there would be many people here who could help you far better than I.”

“Really?” Postumianus showed off yellowing teeth. Suddenly, he leaned forward in his chair over his desk. “Do you know, Gaius Arrius, I rather doubt it. In this day and age of provincial appointments and scores of New Men, mostly from Africa, like Severus or even myself, there’s noone quite like you. A flawless military record, possible quaestor by personal appointment, no less, so you must have made quite the impression on Severus, and believe me, he’s not that easy to impress. You come from an old, old family, not patrician precisely but the next best thing – serving Rome and a long line of emperors for hundreds of years. You have consuls, praetors and magistrates in your ancestry. And last but not least, you’re Roman. Not a Gaul, not African, not even Italian, but Roman. With that kind of perspective, you might have noticed a few things the rest of us tend to overlook.” Postumianus finally leaned back in his seat, grinning like a well-fed cat but with rather shorter fangs.

“And then again…you’re not Roman, or not entirely. Fact is, with your mother being a Briton, you shouldn’t even have been posted here at all, but you were. I heard your father managed to pull a few strings with his old legion to get you here.”

Suddenly, the room seemed much colder, as if a chilly wind had somehow crept in through the windows. Postumianus rubbed his arms.

“I’m afraid, sir, that you’ve been misinformed. My mother was not a Briton, but a Monapian.”

“So? What’s the difference?” The governor shrugged.

“A difference of both language and orientation, sir. Monapia looks to the west and Hibernia, not eastward to Britannia.”

“Does it now? Nothing on Monapia that I’ve ever heard of except a lot of sheep, and certainly nothing of any interest to us.”

Nothing, thought Arrius to himself, for you to exploit, you mean. No gold or silver, no tin, no lead, and no money to be made, since there were sheep to spare in Britannia. He gave Postumianus the full benefit of his iciest glare.

Before the atmosphere in the room could deteriorate any further, the slave returned with a tray, glass carafes filled with wine and water, chased-silver goblets and a matching platter of honeyed sesame cakes.

After they had been served, and the slave had retreated to his post along the wall, Postumianus continued.

“Fair enough, Gaius Arrius. I take it your mother is a rather touchy subject, eh? In any case, you should have a unique perspective on this wretched island, and I thought I’d like to find out what it is. Certainly we have plenty of people, some of whom we pay a fair amount of money to keep us informed. The problem with buying information, though, is that you can never be convinced you actually get what you’re paying for. You’ve been here long enough, I’m sure you know that. Before you left for Rome, I wanted to take a good, long, hard look at the man who managed to capture Cadaracus almost single-handedly, who helped negotiate the terms of last summer’s treaty, even if the bloody thing wasn’t worth the paper it was written on in the first place and that was no fault of yours, and finally, since Severus has you short-listed, he thinks you’re going to be very important, and when he thinks so, that’s good enough for me. Say what you like, but the man has sound instincts…” Postumianus paused for breath – “about some things, anyway.”

Well, thought Arrius, one thing you could say about Postumianus.  He made no bones about his opportunism. It was all there, right out in the open for anyone to see. If you’re going to be important, it would behoove me to cultivate you, in case I need a favor, or you do. Gods. Life was too short for politics, and yet however hard he tried, he couldn’t escape them.

“In any case,” the governor sipped some well-watered wine – “as you know, the Wall is being repaired up and down the length of it, and will be until at least next summer. Got to find something for all those imported troops to do to keep them from being bored, eh? Most of Britannia is fairly stable for now, at least, and so long as we keep the Brigantes happy, they won’t make too much trouble, I hope. My main bellyache for now is those pesky Caledonians and Maeatae, but then again, you managed to get Cadaracus, and that might just shut them up and keep them quiet. And there you have it, Gaius Arrius, my main headache. So very much easier to govern a nice, peaceable province, you know? What I’d like to know is your esteemed opinion on those irritating pests, the Caledonians and Maeatae. What have you learned about them? What do they want?”

“Sir, there must be any number of people who could inform you far better than I. The scouts of the II Augusta, the frumentarii, the merchants who trade north of the Wall and the wall of Antoninus Pius or…”Arrius was beginning to feel as if the cushion underneath him had been stuffed with hot charcoal.

“Or just about anyone who isn’t you, hmm?” Postumianus leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

“And I’ve asked every fucking one of them to tell me what they know, and they have. They’ve all said the same thing – ask Gaius Arrius, he knows them best because of that treaty we made last year. So now I’m asking you.”

Cacat, thought Arrius. Now how do I get myself out of this one?

“I would like to add” Postumianus went on, “that I’m not interested in the usual claptrap flattery of all those government sycophants who only tell me what they think I want to hear or need to know. They’ve all said the same things in different versions, and that’s not what I need to hear. I want to hear the truth, and I’d rather hear it from you.”

“Can I take that to mean that you don’t agree with Imperial policy on expanding the province?” asked Arrius.

“You can take that to mean anything you like. Personally, I like to govern an orderly, happy province with the most efficiency and the least loss of good Roman lives and property. There’s enough trouble in other places in the Empire without Britannia getting unmanageable as well.”

The governor’s face was no longer quite so friendly and welcoming. His arms were still crossed over his chest, and he was leaning back in his chair, looking both formidable and slightly intimidating, despite his lack of stature. There would be no quarter from this man, that was patently clear, and as Arrius sipped his wine and tried to phrase his thoughts, he wondered how he would manage to talk himself out of this little corner. He cleared his throat.

“Well, sir, I’m not quite sure how to put it, but to put it bluntly, they want nothing to do with us, with Rome, or with anything we have to offer.”

This was not what Postumianus had been expecting to hear.

“But why not? We’ve always been good to our provinces! Built roads, brought trade, baths, built aqueducts with fresh water – everything! What else would Britannia be without Rome? Some backwater, uncivilized wilderness in a perpetual state of civil war and constantly at each others’ throats, is what!”

“Yes, sir, that’s true enough, but have you once tried to ask Cadaracus that question? Have you stopped to wonder why it is that they have fought us so vehemently and viciously for the past four years, or wondered why we’ve even bothered to take such drastic steps to subdue such a ‘backwater, uncivilized wilderness’? Really, if you think about it, sir, there isn’t much in Caledonia, at least from our point of view, that is ‘worthy of conquest’, apart from the nicely rounded symmetry of planting the Roman legions entirely throughout this island from the south to the far north. And taxes, of course. Slaves. The usual.” Arrius had to hide a very smug grin. There was nothing in the world quite like pulling the rug out from under your superiors, he thought. He almost began to enjoy himself.

“But rejecting Rome out of hand…” Postumianus murmured. “That’s what I don’t understand. How can anyone purposely want to remain so…barbaric and uncivilized? How can they refuse to be a part of the rest of Britannia?”

“If you think about it a moment, sir, it makes sense, at least if you’re a Caledonian. A complete conquest would mean taxation, among other things, which is an alien concept to a people who live by barter and trade. More to the point, at least from their perspective, sir, is the prospect of slaves and the constant presence of Roman troops, and that’s precisely why they don’t want us, under any circumstances or in any form. Roman troops would mean that they have failed as leaders and as a people to protect their own, their land and their entire way of life, however barbarous it might seem to the rest of us, and for them, living in slavery is not an option they would choose.”

“Ah.” Postumianus leaned forward, all rapt attention now.

“Then, you have another challenge here.” Arrius went on. “You just said it yourself, that there are plans underway, although they’re only plans, for now, to split the province in two, just as we did in Germania and for much the same reasons I’m guessing, although the Britons haven’t been quite such a headache as the Germans. Britannia is a large province, sir, with three legions, and right now with scores of vexillations from other legions as well. I’m thinking that Eboracum would be the obvious choice for the northern capital, but consider this: that if we had succeeded in adding Caledonia to the province, you would be in charge of a province at least as large as southern Britannia, and with far more difficult terrain from a military perspective. In Deva, we’ve had quite a few…skirmishes, let’s say, with marauding Hibernians on the western coast, and that would be another headache for you, if it isn’t already a big enough bellyache for Galba. Should the conquered Caledonians and Maeatae ever get restless at the same time, and if the Hibernians ever get even more audacious than they are now, and if the Brigantes ever decide to join the fray, you’d have trouble from the Middle Sea of the Isles all along the Wall to the Germanic Sea to the east and possibly as far south as the southern border, and meanwhile, whoever is appointed governor in Londinium gets to sit back in supreme comfort and watch the spectacle. So much for your ‘peaceable province’!”

There was a long, interminable pause as Postumianus considered the implications.

“You certainly don’t mince your words, Gaius Arrius.”

“You wanted the truth, sir.”

“And so I had it, straight and unwatered. I can see why Severus would want you as quaestor. But…” The feline, calculating look on Postumianus’ face returned. “That begs another question, and in this case, it’s every bit as relevant as the first.” He leaned forward again and met Arrius’ blue stare head-on.

“Whose side are you on?”

Not for the last time that day, Arrius wondered how he’d ever get out of answering that question.

“Ridiculous question! Of course he’s on our fucking side, Postumianus, how can he be anything else? I didn’t think you were quite such an idiot, or I’d never appointed you governor in the first place!” said a very distinctive voice from the door, and instantly, both Arrius and Postumianus froze in their chairs.

Standing at the door, supported by a cane in his hand on one side and a slave on the other, stood Lucius Septimius Severus.

Arrius and Postumianus gave each other a look, both thinking the exact same thing.


A Night to Remember

Not long before the dinner hour, scrubbed, polished and fairly sober, wafting malabathrum and attar of violets, Lucius and Arrius presented themselves at the door of the house of Iolanthe.

It was not at all what Lucius had expected. For one thing, it was not an easy house to find, tucked away in an overlooked street near the city walls, close to a caupona just now doing a roaring trade catering to a gang of soldiers from the VI Augusta.

It looked, from the outside, at least, like any other structure in the town, a Roman-Briton building with timber and brick walls and the ubiquitous thatch roof, although in this case, the roof rose three stories up, set back from the wall of the property. There was a sign by the door, “Beware the Dog”, and a small window inset into the door at head height.

Arrius banged on the large door knocker. There was a wait, and then an old, wizened face peered out.

“Yes?” His tone was not friendly.

“Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus and Lucius Sabius, for Iolanthe.”

Another wait. Then, the window slammed shut in their faces and the door opened.

Across a small, spotless courtyard, containing nothing more exciting than empty amphorae, some with costly stamps noted Lucius’ trained eye, and two rather downcast matching miniature cypress trees in terracotta pots at the open front door, waited a large, swarthy Syrian. He was clearly delighted to see Arrius.

“Gaius Arrius! It’s been too long since we’ve seen you here – not since spring! And this is your friend, the famous Lucius Sabius?”

“Indeed it is, Nestor, the very same. I trust Iolanthe is expecting us?”

“And most thoroughly delighted she is to see you again, too! But please, do come in…the evenings are growing chilly now…” And Nestor ushered them into the vestibule and shut the door against the evening chill.

Lucius was hugely surprised. Everything around him spelled expensive and restrained taste, from the understated walls painted in elegant shades of blue, to the cushioned marble benches on either side of a rosewood table supporting a huge bouquet of flowers. Beyond, a small, tiled impluvium glittered in the bright light from several large oil lamps and wall sconces, flickering over the fluted Ionic columns of the atrium, and toward the peristyle stood an exceptional small bronze of Venus untying a sandal strap. It was like entering another world, a world more at home in Alexandria, or else the Pincian hill in Rome, and certainly not what he would have expected to find in this outpost on the edge of the Empire. But before he could begin to take it all in, a cloud of attar of roses and swirling blue silk heralded the arrival of Iolanthe.

“Gaius! Darling! You have no idea just how much we’ve missed you here! Poor Chryseis was moping for weeks after you left, and Helena refused to leave her bed! Oh, but it’s good to see you again after that nasty summer you must have had!” She offered Arrius both hands. He grabbed them both, kissed them, and then embraced her long and hard.

She turned from Arrius to Lucius. “So you’re the famous Lucius Sabius! Gaius has told us so much about you – you must have some fascinating stories to tell from all your travels!”

Lucius had lost his capacity for surprise. The house had been a surprise of its own. But the biggest surprise of all was Iolanthe herself. She was tall for a woman, with a very slim, hard dancer’s body. Her face was an interesting arrangement of angles and planes, tastefully painted, her long, black hair was set in an elegant chignon. Her gown was of the finest Coan silk, overlaid with transparent draperies in five different shades of blue, and topped by an embroidered dark blue shawl. Heavy silver and peridot Egyptian earrings, bangles and hairpins accented her blue gown. Her eyes were a surprise – they were a light, sparkling, silvery blue. Only faint, feathery lines around them gave away the fact that Iolanthe was not quite young. A piquant, very intelligent face, to be sure, if not quite a perfectly beautiful one, and yet a face that would demand attention wherever it went. She looked to be in her mid-thirties. But was surprised Lucius most was that he had met her once before, very far away indeed from Eboracum. He never forgot a face, especially a face such as this one. What had it been? Four years ago? Four years ago, at that very exclusive dinner party in Alexandria Euphanus had been so excited about…where Iolanthe – although he couldn’t recall if that had been her name, then – had played hostess for Chryses Diodorus…oh, but this was fascinating!

If Iolanthe recognized him in any way, she certainly gave no sign of it. There was no hesitation in her demeanor, no telltale lifted eyebrow or catch in her voice. Instead, she twined her arms through both of theirs, and walked toward the open doors of a sitting room off the atrium.

“Please, both of you…make yourselves comfortable. Dinner will be served in a few moments, and it’s much warmer in here. I can’t believe that the summer is already over.”

Arrius collapsed with a sigh on a wide, cushioned sofa, looking completely at ease and completely at home for the first time that day. “And what a wretched summer it was…I’m telling you, Iolanthe, why the Emperor is so insistent on Caledonia I’ll never know. It’s a miserable, cold, wet corner of Hades is what it is, and with impossible terrain and impossible people. I can’t wait to get back to Rome and some decent weather. Britannia is just too cold, too dark, too wet, and too far away from everything that matters…”

Iolanthe motioned to a slave. “Ganymede, something light before dinner, I think – the Salernian, no…some of that wine from Arcadia, yes…and let me know when dinner will be served.”

Ganymede, a small, weedy boy of about twelve, bowed and left.

While they waited, and Arrius continued to moan and groan about his miserable past six years, Lucius looked around. He was no stranger to luxury – after all, he specialized in the luxury trade – but all the same, he had never expected a house such as Iolanthe’s in a town like Eboracum.

The walls were painted with vistas it took him a moment to recognize, and then he had it. They were different views of the riverbank of the Orontes, and in the far distance, the great city of Antioch had been suggested, the columns and roofs of temples and public buildings painted just well enough to maintain the illusion, the willows, flowers, reeds and birds of the riverbank framed by vivid frames of geometric painted marble tiles in complementary colors. They were painted so well, Lucius could almost imagine himself there, underneath a lush green willow, listening to the birds and the splash of the river on the banks.

The elaborate bronze wall sconces, two hanging lamps and the tall tripod brazier in one corner, burning apple wood charcoal and small balls of some very expensive incense, on the other hand, could only have come from either Athens or Alexandria. There was a small open cupboard, containing some exquisite glassware flagons, and a citruswood table between the wide blue linen couches, casually strewn with fluffy pillows in every shade of blue silk and cotton only a lot of money could buy. It was a feminine sitting room, but not overly so, warm but not stifling, luxurious, but not ostentatious.

Maybe, Lucius thought to himself as the little slave entered with a silver tray, glass flagons of wine and water and three silver cups, that was what surprised him the most. Away from the towns, the baths, the mansios and military camps, most of Britannia had not really changed much at all since the days of Claudius and Agricola. To find such beauty, such a haven for all that was truly civilized in the world in Eboracum, close to the edge of the Empire, would be a privilege worth paying for. How Iolanthe managed to keep such a secret with the Emperor himself in residence, Lucius didn’t want to know.

Iolanthe handed him a cup, the perfect gracious hostess. “Here, Lucius Sabius, you look as if you might need it!” she said with a laugh.

“Oh! Thank you. I’m sorry, Iolanthe, I suppose I was rather overcome with your house. It certainly isn’t what I expected.” Lucius was perched on the edge of one couch, unlike his slovenly best friend, who had spread himself all over the other end and most of the pillows like olive oil.

“Do you know, I rather think my house always surprises my visitors, but in a good way, or so I hope.” Iolanthe sipped her wine. “But Gaius here has told me so much about you – I understand you’ve been to India? Is it truly as wonderful as everyone says it is?”

“Well, what can I say about India that hasn’t been said much better already? I’m no geographer, merely a simple shipping agent out to make a living as best I can…”

“Horseshit!” Arrius tossed back the contents in his cup and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Lucius here –” he reached out and punched his friend on the shoulder, “is one of the most talented people I know, and he hasn’t been simple since the womb.”

Iolanthe laughed again. “Now, now, I’m sure you’re right, Gaius. Once Lucius is quite recovered – dinner should help, I think – he’ll probably be dragging out all his adventurous tales again, since now he has a new and much more appreciative audience.” She leaned back into the pillows. “And speaking of talent, what have I been hearing about you around the praetorium lately, Gaius? Something about you managing to capture Cadaracus? Wasn’t Antoninus charged with that on the last campaign?”

Arrius groaned and put his head in his hands. “I know, I know,” he said after a slight pause. “My impetuosity will be the death of me yet. Well, what happened was that…”

Lucius looked distinctly nervous, began to fidget with a pillow and shifted in his seat. “Isn’t that privileged information? I mean, the Palace is right across the river, and who knows who’s listening to the doors and walls here…”

Iolanthe leaned forward, looking Lucius straight in the eye.

“Lucius Sabius, you need to understand a few things here. First of all, whatever happens here will remain here. No one need know you’ve even been here in the first place, and second of all, no one ever listens at doors, windows, hides in portieres or eavesdrops whom I haven’t told to do so.”

“Well, I’ve certainly had no problems at all finding out that Gaius first of all came to you whenever he came to Eboracum, and second, precisely just how much money he’s spent here!” retorted Lucius.

“That”, Arrius stated arrogantly from his splayed out position on the pillows, “is because I have absolutely nothing to hide!”

“Really?” Lucius turned in his seat and gave his best friend a filthy look. “Then why is it that you have yet to tell me anything at all about what in Hades happened in Caledonia this past summer, apart from… ‘I shouldn’t have done that, and it was…bad’. Bad! It’s the fucking Roman Army on campaign, man, how could it be anything else?”

Right at the moment Arrius opened his mouth to reply, and when even the usually levelheaded Iolanthe was poised to say something soothing, Nestor appeared at the door.

“Dinner is prepared in the winter dining suite, Domina.”

Iolanthe jumped to her feet with a surreptitious sigh of relief.
“Wonderful! Now, gentlemen…” she grabbed Lucius’ and Arrius’ hands and pulled them up out of the couch, “I’m sure this scintillating matter for discussion will work much better over a good dinner. Come with me…” and she proceeded to propel them from her sitting room across the atrium and into her winter dining room, a brightly lit red-frescoed room with a black and white tiled floor. No river scene here, it was one continuous procession of dancers and musicians all around the room, throwing flowers, thrumming lyres and trailing diaphanous garments that left little to the imagination. The three dining couches, also red, had thick silver tasseled bolsters arranged at comfortable intervals, and around the room burned hanging oil lamps, thick wax candles in ornate brass holders and two braziers.

Two slaves were waiting to take off their sandals and replace them with warm woolen socks and heated rosewater to wash their hands. Lucius and Arrius were placed on the middle couch, while Iolanthe placed herself to their left.

The largest oysters Lucius had ever seen, the size of a man’s hand, glittered lasciviously on the half shell in front of him on a bed of lettuce. He reached out and tried one, and was not disappointed. No wonder they commanded such high prices in Rome! He reached for another.

Arrius stared morosely into his wine cup. He had been in such a good mood, and now Lucius just had to ruin it.

“Gaius.” Iolanthe’s low voice woke him up from his reverie. She reached out and grabbed his hand. “You can tell us whatever you want, you know.”

“And…” mumbled Lucius around a mouthful of succulent oyster with a tiny dab of fish sauce, “you don’t have to say anything you don’t want to. It’s just rather strange that you won’t talk about Caledonia, and shut up like, oh…an oyster whenever I’ve asked you about it.”

“Did it ever occur to you, Lucius, that I might have my reasons? No, no…” Arrius sipped his wine and held up his hand to stop Lucius from interrupting.  Luckily, Lucius had so much oyster in his mouth that interrupting was out of the question.

“I haven’t told you, Lucius, or even you, Iolanthe, what happened first of all because it happened so fast and second of all because I have yet to sort it out in my own mind. Do you know what Severus’ orders were, once the treaty finally broke down and we all knew we’d have to tramp all over godsforsaken Caledonia again? Well, I’ll tell you. He quoted a line of Agamemnon’s from the Iliad, right before the fall of Troy…” he cleared his throat and quoted the lines softly in Greek. ‘Let no one escape alive, not even the babe in its mother’s womb…let no one escape total devastation…’ How’s that for your marching orders, hmm? Knowing that it will be one endless bloodbath for four even longer months in terrible terrain, and meanwhile, the one man supposedly in charge of the whole sorry affair, who just as presumably knows what he’s doing, only wants to secure his own power base by keeping the troops eating, drinking and fornicating, so they forget why they’re there, are far too drunk to care once they do see some action, and in general don’t give one fig’s worth what happens so long as good old Antoninus, excellent Caesar that he is, keeps the wine and women coming once they’ve washed off the blood and entrails of the day.” He downed his wine in one long gulp.

“So imagine, Lucius, what that will do to your mind, day in and day out, trying to keep up your own morale, trying to keep up the morale of your men and trying to keep them alive through either endless bog lands or mountain paths that are basically just ambush traps, and Gods, were we ambushed, every chance they had, they took.” Arrius finally reached for an oyster on the half shell, didn’t add fish sauce, and sucked it down.

“One thing I’ll miss, the oysters of Britannia…Anyway, by the time we returned to Trimontium with some sketchy plans to return the following spring, again!, I had had…enough, and so had just about everyone else. Antoninus had been charged with getting his hands around Cadaracus’ scrawny neck, so he couldn’t rally up whatever Maeatae and leftover Caledonian confederates were still left hiding in the bogs and marshes to make all our lives miserable all over again, but Antoninus had other plans. Very well. We couldn’t pay those cunni enough, couldn’t grant them land enough, sweeten trade deals enough, they wanted everything we had and about twice as much after that. It was either get Cadaracus, or die in Caledonia. The question was how?” Another oyster followed the first.

The oysters in front of Lucius had all but disappeared, and Lucius eyed the last one on the platter. Then, he cast a glance over to Arrius, and laid the oyster shell in front of him without another word.

Down it went to join its brothers. Arrius wiped his fingers on a dinner napkin and took another sip of wine.

“Look to a woman to find a way…” He smiled at Iolanthe. Iolanthe smiled back, so sweetly that Lucius’ hackles immediately rose on the back of his neck.

“We were beginning to pack up in Trimontium, getting ready to trudge back to winter quarters in Deva, and probably get ready to repeat this summer’s carnage – and it was…carnage – all over again come spring.”

He was interrupted by slaves carrying out the ransacked oyster platters and replacing them with a huge, honey-baked salmon, stuffed with parsley and a little lovage, artfully decorated. Once Lucius was served, he tucked in with a vengeance.

Arrius gave him a look. “Do you mind if I continue the story while you stuff your face?”

Lucius gestured with a bit of pink salmon. His mouth was far too full to reply. He never knew that fish could be so delicious.

“Please, Gaius, go on.” Iolanthe wiped her fingers on her dinner napkin and touched his arm.

“Well, one night Carbo, Tillius Rufus, our primipilus and a great friend, and I were getting drunk on beer, always a perilous undertaking, because it makes you so damned philosophical, and wondering what we could do to end the deadlock. As long as he was still alive, Cadaracus would never be anything else but a large, poisoned thorn in all our sides, and frankly, we were fed up. He could rally every last Maeatan and Caledonian confederate standing if he wanted, which is strange if you think about it, since there couldn’t have been too many of them left alive by this time, but what there were, he could muster. And meanwhile, Antoninus, the fool, was merrily making his way back to Eboracum and dear old Daddy, probably inventing a few thousand excuses as to why he hadn’t captured the man, and what so many amphorae of Falernian were doing in Horrea Classis, not to mention scattered the length and breadth of Caledonia.”

Arrius reached for a chunk of salmon. A few moments later, something that sounded like “Fabulous salmon, Iolanthe!” emerged from his mouth. He wiped his fingers, and drank deeply from his cup.

“Oh, that was good! So there I was, pissing out endless quantities of beer in the latrines when Priscus, our intelligence officer, flies in looking for me. Back I went to the others in my quarters, Priscus trailing behind like an ill wind. A Maeatan, one who had a deep grudge against Cadaracus, had come to say he knew how we could get him. He knew where he was hiding, he knew how many guards and others were there to protect him, and best of all, he knew the way through the marshes and fens and mountains, a way that forty legions and some of the best minds in the Empire had been unable to find in three years of campaigning. He would even show us, for a large fee of course, simply because Cadaracus had abducted his pregnant wife and carried her off for his own, and he wanted revenge in the worst possible way.”

“So that’s what you meant”, said Iolanthe, “when you said…‘look to a woman to find a way…’ She snapped her fingers, and Samian ware patens with a thick stew, fragrant with mint and garlic were set out before them. Warm chunks of bread were placed on saucers next to them, and the wine slave refilled their cups.

“It was,” sighed Arrius, as he tore a chunk of bread with his fingers and dipped it in the stew. “Do you know, Iolanthe, I’m ecstatic I don’t come here more often, because if I did, I’d be fat as a tick in no time at all!”

“I rather doubt it,” Lucius said, “because you talk far more than you eat!”

“Not something anyone could ever accuse you of, Carrot!”

“Just because I haven’t eaten this well since Alexandria four years ago doesn’t mean I can’t accord such stupendous food the respect it deserves!”

“Please, Lucius….” Iolanthe motioned to a slave to give Lucius more bread. “Enjoy yourself. That’s why you’re here.”

Lucius happily obliged by inhaling his stew in nothing flat.

“It was simple, really,” Arrius went on. “The VI Augusta was still at Trimontium, so I got together with Afer and their intelligence to make certain this man was as good as he said he was. Everything checked out. Rufus and Carbo, meanwhile, rallied up twenty of the best and most discreet men in the cavalry we had. We knew we had to keep it all a secret, you understand. Galba, my legate would have an unholy fit if he found out, and as for Antoninus…best not to go there. Cadaracus was hiding three days’ ride away, and horses were the only answer to getting there and back before the VI Augusta left for winter quarters. So we told the sentries on duty that night to keep their mouths absolutely shut, and snuck out the north gates.”

“Priscus must surely have known what you were planning?” Lucius asked the obvious.

“Priscus has his uses. He’s the best there is in gathering information in all sorts of ways I don’t want to even think about. His problem, though, is he all too often doesn’t know what to do with that information once he’s got it. Besides, he’s lazy. All I had to do to throw him off the scent was to say ‘I’ll take care of it’, and Priscus is off the hook with a sigh of relief and merrily on his way to bribe, extort or torture someone else about something else entirely.”

Iolanthe stirred her stew distractedly with a finger. “I wonder if I’ve ever met him…”

“Don’t worry, darling, he could never afford you! He’s far too busy saving up for a knighthood.”

“Ah.” She lifted her elegant eyebrows. “One of those…” She sucked off the stew on her finger with a suggestive look that nearly made Lucius choke on his wine.

“You know, the hardest thing was to sneak the horses out the gates. Thankfully, Carbo installed the fear of Mithras’ wrath and my own into the sentries.” Arrius laughed at the memory. “They didn’t dare breathe a word after that!”

“The man knew a way through the mountains, all right, and through those endless bogs and fens. Most of the path wasn’t even grand enough to be called a path; it was deer tracks and boar runs and shifting vegetation that told you to go left, right or straight ahead. We fell in the mire so many times it was a miracle we managed to find Cadaracus, and maybe even more of a miracle that we still looked like Roman soldiers when we did! Three days of that endless squelching in cold mud and muck and putrid bogs and deer tracks that seemed to go straight up the mountainsides…Those poor horses! And the rest of us weren’t that much better off.”

“I’ll gladly trade you the trek across the desert to Berenice any day!” Lucius looked up from a luscious, sweet pastry stuffed with pine nuts, apples and raisins. He ripped off a piece of pastry and soaked up some of the honey syrup it was drenched in. Gods, such food! No ostrich tongues or peacock livers here, just simple, ambrosial food!

“At least the desert would be warmer and drier! Now, are you going to let me continue the story, or are you just going to interrupt me and clean off that plate of pastries?” Arrius nudged him gently with his elbow.

Iolanthe laughed again. “How long have you two known each other?”

“All our lives, which is far too long!” they both said in unison.

“Now, Lucius…” Iolanthe looked at him through long, sooty eyelashes. “Do please keep quiet. Gaius is telling us a story…”

Arrius grabbed Iolanthe’s hand and kissed it. “Thank you, darling! Anyway…three days’ hard slog, three days of keeping our horses from just bolting, not that I’d blame them, and there it was, Cadaracus’ secret hideaway. Not much of one, even.

“It was a farm of sorts, tucked away in a mountain valley no Roman would even think of looking for. There was a plowed field that had been harvested. A few trees, apple and pine trees mostly, a small garden, and about seven wattle and daub huts clustered around a larger, central hut. Sheep in the field, some cattle further up on the other side of the valley, a few pens with chickens, goats and ducks. Like I said, not much. The rest of the valley was mainly forested, except for the stream that ran along the valley floor toward the north, and the upland pasture where the cattle were grazing.”

Suddenly, Arrius sat upright on the dining couch. He briefly ran his fingers through his hair, adjusted his tunic, and sighed. He reached out for his wine cup and took a long, deep draught.

“Gods! Who would have thought of it? One of the most wanted men in Caledonia, if not Britannia or even the Empire itself, guarded by only twelve men? I guess he thought he’d be safe there, in his hidden valley, but thanks to the Maeatan, not nearly safe enough. There were about twenty people there altogether, so far as we could see from the cover of the woods up on the slope, the rest of them women. There were twenty of them, and twenty-three of us, and every single one of us ready and raring to go, just itching like a bad attack of fleas at the prospect of getting even for four years of unrelenting Caledonian… misery.”

Lucius rolled over on his right side and looked up at Arrius. “An uneven contest, then.”

“Not much of a contest at all, really. Sure enough, the Maeatan’s woman was there, too, laughing with the men who stood guard outside the central hut. She evidently didn’t seem too unhappy with her situation, and if the size of her belly were anything to judge by, she was close to giving birth.”

“The woman,” said Iolanthe.

“The very one.” For a moment, Arrius looked almost haunted. He stared down into the depths of his wine cup as if he were looking for the words, then he downed the contents and held it out to the wine slave for a refill.

“We really hadn’t had much opportunity to plan any grand attacks on the way, simply because we were usually too busy with just keeping ourselves and our horses alive. Also, remember we had the Maeatan in tow, and I’d dealt quite enough with those slippery fish in these last few years to know not to trust them any more than strictly necessary. So, do you know, there were no grand speeches or battle arrays. All we had to do was secure our horses in the safest place we could find, bring the shackles for Cadaracus, and the rest was simple. We’d all been fighting together for so long, we knew what to do. I left eight of the men up on the slope as a reserve, just in case there were more men down there than we could see, stashed away in a sou-terrain somewhere. It had happened lots of times before, so it could very likely happen again.”

“My…” Lucius picked up stray raisins on the platter with the wet end of a sticky finger. “You have had a wretched summer, haven’t you?”

“I’ve said it before, sheep, and I’ll say it again. Yes. Now be a good sheep and stop braying, will you?”

Lucius concentrated on his raisins.

Arrius ran his fingers through his hair again. “The rest of us, with Rufus in the front yelling the XX battle cry at the top of his lungs, charged down the slope, across the stream and into the settlement. We had intended to catch them by surprise, and gods, were they surprised! Some of them came running from the latrines with their trousers down around their ankles, and others just dropped whatever they were holding in their hands and tried to make a run for their swords. Needless to say, they never made it that far. Every single one of us, even the Maeatan, wanted to get even for all the misery we’d gone through this summer, so it didn’t take that long. Before the shadows were lengthening on the valley slopes, we’d made short and bloody work of them. All we had to do was drag Cadaracus out of his hut and shackle him up, and we could start making our way back to Trimontium. Or so we thought. We were wrong.”

“What happened?” Iolanthe sipped her wine. The suspense was killing her.

“Those damned women! How could we have known, when we thought we knew all else there was to know about them? How were we to know that the women had taken refuge in the sou-terrain of Cadaracus’ hut, or even that it had one, hidden in the floor? You see, we went in, once all the men we could find were thoroughly dead and disemboweled, and sure enough, there he was in all his face-scarred, blue-painted glory, holding his sword and looking mightily pissed, and no wonder. His guards had fallen like so many flies.”

“Let me tell you about those Caledonians. Some of them are short and dark, a lot like you, sheep, ” Arrius poked Lucius in the side with his elbow, “and some of them look no different than Germans, really, big and brawny and fair, and then, there are the few that look like Cadaracus, and Cadaracus was absolutely…terrifying. He stood half a head taller than I do, and I’m taller than just about everyone, and he was a good deal wider. Not fat, it was all muscle, from his neck to his feet. He had dark red hair down to his waist, braided close to his head and down his back in a hundred small braids like so many of them do, tied off  with feathers, and a huge silver torc around his neck. The biggest torc I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve seen a few these past six years. Made from all that looted Roman silver, no doubt. But the most terrifying thing was his face. He had what they call the warrior scars on his forehead, meaning he’d proven himself in battle, and around his eyes and down his cheeks, he was painted – how they do it, I’m not sure, but it never comes off – with that blue paint so many of their leaders use. If he had been a gladiator in Rome, he would have caused a sensation, simply for looking so outlandish. Right at that moment, though, fourteen of my bravest, staunchest cavalry officers, men who had seen into the abyss of Hades and survived, men who weren’t afraid of anything at all, stood still as statues, jaws hanging slack and swords lowered in absolute awe, and even I wasn’t sure what to say. That pastry looks delicious…” Arrius reached out and grabbed a piece. There was a pause, while he chewed, swallowed, and washed it down with some wine. “Fat as a tick…” he mumbled through the second mouthful. He winked at Iolanthe, wiped his fingers and his mouth with his napkin, and went on.

“Well, this was the Maeatan’s moment. He stepped forward from the back near the door, walked straight up to Cadaracus and hissed: ‘You.’

Then, it was Cadaracus’ turn not to know what to say. He opened his mouth to reply, lowered his sword in surprise, I think, and then…eight furies armed with swords and maces poured up and out from a sou-terrain behind his throne, most of them pregnant, and all of them screaming some battle cry that froze our blood and stopped us cold.”

Even the slaves in the dining room were still, the only sound in the room the occasional hiss and crackle of the charcoal in the braziers. Lucius sat up. He had to. If he had remained lying down, his stomach would have exploded. Again, Arrius had a strange, haunted look on his face. His voice dropped even lower, and the slaves leaned closer, so they didn’t miss a word. Iolanthe and Lucius dared hardly breathe.

“I would have done it, if I hadn’t had a fury jump on my back at that moment, but Rufus is First Spear for a reason, and that reason is his incredible presence of mind. Lightning fast, he propelled Cadaracus through the hut and out the door, shackling him in chains as he went and cursing like a sailor all the way, until he was outside and could whistle for help in holding him down. I didn’t have the time. I had one woman attacking me from the front with a wildly swinging mace, and another had just jumped up on my back, grabbed me by the hair because my helmet had fallen off in the fighting and was holding a sword to my throat. The only thing I could do was drop to my knees, roll around to avoid that mace and smash my elbow backwards into the face of the woman on my back. We were all fighting for our lives like mad, those women each fought like ten of their men. With warriors like that, we would have been run out of Caledonia like so many sheep to a slaughter…

The woman with the mace luckily just missed my head, but not the right shoulder of the woman on my back, and she let go of her sword with a very loud cry, but she didn’t let go of my hair. I somehow managed to shrug her off, grabbed my sword, whirled around and plunged it in her belly at an angle, up and across, and then I realized…” Arrius sighed again, and his voice dropped even lower. He was almost whispering now. “I realized just who it was I’d just killed. She was still alive for a moment longer, spewing curses and spraying me with her blood. There was something in that bloody gash as well, a tiny foot that…” his voice trailed off. “It kicked for a moment, and then it went still. I had…killed the Maeatan’s woman, the very reason we were there in the first place, and the one person apart from Cadaracus we were not supposed to kill – that was part of the agreement.” He buried his face in his hands at the memory. It was quite some time before he had recovered himself enough to continue, and when he had, his voice still shook slightly.

“After that, there was only two things left to do – kill the Maeatan, and it was either that, or he would have had my head on a stake, believe me – and get out. We’d made markers all along the way from Trimontium – like I said, never trust a Maeatan more than you have to – so we could find our way back on our own. Before the sun was down, the settlement was on fire, the livestock were let loose over the valley, and we were on our way back to Trimontium, and as far away from this nightmare as we could get, if not nearly far enough for my taste.” Arrius ran his hands through his hair, shook himself all over like a dog out of water, and took a long draught of wine.

Lucius searched his mind for the right thing to say, and came up empty. What was there to say to such a story? When in doubt, use a cliché.

“Well.” He finally found his voice. “That was some…story.”

“It was” agreed Iolanthe. “More to the point, Gaius dear, is how do we get you out of this mess? Like you said, Antoninus has a grudge against you which dates back at least as far as the treaty you helped negotiate with the Caledonians and Maeatans last summer. Yes, I know, I know…it failed, for reasons that had nothing to do with you. That’s not my point. My point is that Antoninus sees you for what you are – a better commander, and a far better man than he is, and he hates to be reminded. Even more, he hates to be humbled, which is precisely what you did when you managed what he didn’t – to catch Cadaracus. So now Severus needs to acknowledge you for your deed, and at the same time he needs to chasten his son. On top of it all, I’ve been hearing rumors that he wants you as one of the quaestores Augusti, which would be both a perfect reward for Cadaracus and the perfect start of your career as a senator. Is it true?”

Lucius shook his head. No, he reminded himself for the umpteenth time, Iolanthe was not, most emphatically not, a madam. No madam had quite so good a grasp on politics. Gods, what a mess! Poor Gaius…

Arrius sighed, remembering the letters he carried in his rucksack, to be presented tomorrow to Postumianus.

“I’m afraid so. Galba said I was to be discharged with all honors from the XX Victrix, so I take that to mean that Severus has me on his shortlist.”

“Given that Severus has been so ill lately, that shortlist may be a death warrant, knowing Antoninus. Geta might have something to say about that, and you’ve never had any trouble with Geta…Hmmm…” Iolanthe rubbed her forehead, mulling over possibilities.

Arrius sat up straighter. “Iolanthe, you know how Antoninus feels about his brother. I really don’t think Geta will have much longer to live once Severus isn’t around to restrain his older brother. I’m beginning to think that maybe I should just resign from the Senate while I’m still alive and disappear off to some forgotten corner of the Empire not even Antoninus knows about…”

“Now, now, Gaius, don’t give up so easily just yet. You still have your appointment with Postumianus tomorrow, and many things can happen. Besides, Severus, for all the Empress’ insisting we all pray for his health, is far tougher than he looks, and do please remember – he’s not quite dead yet, and he’s certainly not senile.”

There was a commotion outside the dining room, and not even the soothing tones of Nestor could quite overcome a loud, insistent and very self-important voice.

“What do you mean; she’s busy with other guests? I sent her a message this afternoon stating I would be delayed by a Palace dinner party, and she knows I’d be over as soon as I possibly could…” Then, the heavy woolen curtains parted, and in walked a heavyset, middle-aged man in tunic and full senatorial toga, looking around the room as if he owned it down to the last olive on the saucer in front of Lucius.

Iolanthe unwound herself gracefully from the throw she had wrapped herself in and rose to her feet.

“Gaius and Lucius…” again the perfect hostess, “may I have the pleasure of introducing Gaius Primius Marra, a visiting senator, who happens to be here in Eboracum on official business. Marra my dear – “ she reached out and touched Marra’s shoulder, and instantly his ruffled feathers settled and he beamed back at Iolanthe – “this is Lucius Sabius Niger, a shipping agent from Puteoli whom I don’t think you would know, and Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, the soon former senior tribune of the XX Victrix.”

Marra’s fleshy mouth fell open into a perfect circle. “Oh! So you’re the one…”

Arrius got to his feet and clasped Marra’s arm. “Salve, Marra. I don’t believe we’ve met before. The one…?”

“The one who’s turned everyone upside down at the praetorium, or so I’ve heard…most daring, I must say, and most unorthodox, to finally capture Cadaracus. I can only hope they appreciate that much initiative on your part, young man. Imagination can be a dangerous thing to have in the Roman Army, you know, and personally, I believe that…”

They were all spared a lecture by the arrival of Nestor.

“I do apologize for the delay, Senator, but your friend will see you now…”

“Ah!” The anticipation was plain on Marra’s face. “Then by all means…” and docile as a lamb, he let Nestor lead him off to the Gods only knew where.

Even Iolanthe breathed a small sigh of relief once he was gone.

“I do apologize, but Marra has not been one of the easiest houseguests I’ve had. The man just never shuts up! The things I wish I didn’t know about the goings-on at the Palace, and that’s just his dinner party conversation…but never mind.”

Iolanthe sat down on the nearest couch with a sigh and rubbed the backs of her arms. “Is it me, or is it cold tonight?” She reached for her wine cup and downed the contents in one draught.

“It’s getting on towards autumn,” murmured Lucius.

“Yes…” Iolanthe replied absentmindedly, “which means there isn’t much time…but maybe just enough. I’ll have to think about it. Ah, where was I? Of course! Well, Gaius darling, we shall talk about everything and more tomorrow, after your appointment, I think, and in the meantime, it’s time for a little fun, hmm Lucius?” She gave Lucius a saucy wink. Follow me!”

That last remark was said in Greek with a definite Antioch twang and a very salacious laugh, and it took a moment for Lucius to get the joke. Ah, those women of Antioch…

They followed Iolanthe through the atrium and the small peristyle beyond, and up an inside staircase at the back of the house. Now, Lucius could fully appreciate just how large the house was. It wound around the peristyle on three sides and up three stories, as they climbed past the second story and up a third staircase to the top of the house, down a corridor and through another door and then he found himself in front of a wide double door.

Iolanthe opened the door and beckoned both Arrius and Lucius in. And for the last time that stupendous day, Lucius’ mouth dropped open in amazement.

It was not one room, but three, with two smaller sleeping cubicles opening off to the left and right of the large central room, furnished – if you could call it that – like nothing else Lucius had ever seen before in his life, and he had always thought he had seen most everything.

Against a rich, red-brown background, every permutation of man and woman, god and goddess, nymphs, satyrs and centaurs, frolicked among the painted trees of a garden in one continuous erotic chain. On the corner, Jupiter had his head buried up the diaphanous skirts of a nymph, while on his right a juicy blonde was kissing him on the thigh. A centaur was taking her from behind. So it went, all around the main walls of the room in one endless, dizzying procession, everyone on the walls doing everyone else in every way humanly – and occasionally inhumanly – possible, no hand idle, no orifice unstuffed, and on every face was painted the final stages of terminal ecstasy. Dear Gods, could a woman actually do that turned upside down on her head, while a man with a truly titanic erection was…

Lucius turned his gaze downward.

Apart from a stretch of red Parthian rug that ran through the room and into both cubicles, the rest of the room consisted of a high dais that spanned the width, with a thick, enormous mattress, numerous fur and wool blankets, throws and countless pillows in various sizes and shades of red tossed artlessly around it. Two hanging oil lamps provided the lighting, and an elaborate incense burner perfumed the air. Along one wall ran a shelf, with a glass flagon of wine, five goblets and a full basket of fruit. Right in the middle of that huge mattress three jewels the likes of which Lucius had never found in India glowed like pearls. Then Arrius walked in, and they immediately spoiled Lucius’ reverie by squealing like starved piglets as soon as he walked in the room.

Iolanthe was obviously enjoying herself immensely.

“Of course, Lucius, you haven’t been introduced properly…Well then, this is Helena, from Batavia…”

Helena from Batavia was honey-blonde, light-eyed and had a body that would have made Venus herself wild with jealousy. She extricated her arms from around Arrius’ neck and smiled sweetly.

“So you’re the famous Lucius Sabius. Arrius here has told us so much about you…”

“This”, Iolanthe went on, “is Chryseis, from Cyprus…”

Chryseis was a petite and very voluptuous brunette with unbelievable almond eyes. She slid her hand lightly over Lucius’ body, and for a brief moment, Lucius had to take a very deep breath. He suddenly seemed to have run out of air.

“Finally…” Iolanthe’s voice was proud. “This is Boadicea, who is Brigantian …”

Lucius had by now completely lost his ability to breathe. Sacred Priapus, here was an Amazon come to life to wake up every single phallus in existence and turn it into marble! Boadicea was taller even than Iolanthe, with broad shoulders, truly stupendous breasts and endlessly curving hips, only half-concealed by both the diaphanous robe she wore and a knee-length stream of straight, copper-red hair. With her creamy ivory skin and devastating, enormous blue eyes, she was every erotic dream poor Lucius had never even known he had, but now would never forget. Sacred Aphrodite!

“Arrius here…” Boadicea’s voice was deep and furry like a cat’s if it could talk, “says you’ve famous…”

Lucius was far too dumbfounded for his usual quick repartee.

“Really?” he somehow managed to squeak.

Iolanthe was whispering something into Arrius’ ear. She turned away, toward Lucius with a huge smile. “Lucius, dear, I shall leave you in the best of hands and in very good company…tomorrow, then.”

With a last fragrant trail of blue silks and attar of roses, Iolanthe was gone, and the doors closed behind her.

“So then, Arrius…” Helena was deftly undressing him with one hand and dragging him over to the dais with the other, “how shall we punish you for not sending us so much as one letter since the spring? Let me see what I can do…”

Boadicea glided up to Lucius and slid a soft hand underneath his tunic. In no time, Lucius was lying like a Parthian king on several pillows while Chryseis and Boadicea were over every single inch of him, turning his blood to liquid fire in ways he didn’t know were possible.

He had thought himself experienced, a man who knew just how much pleasure could be had with one woman or with several women at once. But never in his entire twenty-six years had he experienced anything remotely like the ladies at Iolanthe’s. No…some remote corner of his mind was saying, these women were not women at all, they were goddesses come to life to unleash Olympian ecstasies on to an unsuspecting, unprepared world…and then, not even Lucius could think anymore.

He shared all three women with Arrius. They had them separately, they took them together. They did things he never knew, those women made him feel as he had never felt before in his life, and on some level felt certain he never would again. When he thought he was finished and dead and had nothing at all left to give, a soft hand would creep up, a mouth start breathing fire down the length of him, a silky caress of hair or eyelashes would somehow wake him back up, and there would be more to Lucius Sabius Niger than even he had ever suspected.

At some point, even Lucius fell asleep. Arrius withdrew into the sleeping cubicle with Helena, but not before he had one final glance back into the room at Lucius, lying in absolute bliss, covered by a fur throw.

Lucius had the biggest smile on his face that Arrius had ever seen.

Which had been his intention all along.

The Secrets of a Courtesan

It was a losing battle. It didn’t matter how vigilant you were, how carefully you ate and drank, how much you applied yourself in your gymnasium, how many Greek potions, face creams and ointments and miracle cures and horrendously expensive Alexandrian cosmetics you slathered all over your face – you still… grew older.

Men grew more distinguished with age, as if time itself lent them some special patina and polish that commanded respect and dignity, whereas women…

Obviously, this was not the right frame of mind with which to greet one of her favorite clients. Iolanthe turned her hand mirror in the bright light of her bedroom this way and that, inspecting her slaves’ handiwork. It was, like the rest of her house and indeed her own self, flawless. That Indian face powder Diodorus had sent her was remarkable stuff. Her skin hadn’t broken out once.

Time to dress. The blue silk, with the silver Indian embroidery, she thought, to bring out her eyes, and oh, yes, the beryls from that strange island near Berenice, the jeweled hair pins, the necklace and the earrings, the bangles, and since it would be chilly tonight, her favorite blue shawl.

Once, twenty years ago, Iolanthe, which had not been her name in those days, had been one of the most celebrated dancers of her day. She had performed for everyone – the rich, the powerful, the famous, at the Flavian Amphitheatre, and even the Palatine for Commodus, from Gades, Rome, Massilia and Alexandria to her native Antioch, performing acts that had been both highly dangerous and dangerously erotic involving many peacock feathers, an enormous Indian python and seven curved Parthian knives. She had had numerous lovers, including senators and consulars, and had ruined several family fortunes.  She had never been registered in the prostitutes’ register, and several former lovers made certain that she never would be so long as they maintained their own political clout. Simply put, she had come to know…too much for their comfort, if not for her own. By the time she had decided it was time to retire, however, she did what she had vowed never to do – she fell in love.

The result was her son, living in Alexandria with his father, and being trained to enter into his flourishing business.

So, once she had determined he would survive childhood and she ensured he had been provided for, she had thought it prudent to invent another name and another identity, this time as a wealthy Syrian widow – the Syrian part was true enough – and to see if there weren’t profits to be made from the legions who were being deployed to Britannia to vanquish the many tribes of Caledonia that were making civilized life there such misery. But she had no interest whatsoever in merely opening up a brothel. Britannia had brothels to spare, lupanaria and cauponae and bakery shops only too willing to take on the trade of thousands of soldiers in search of relief from the endless gloom and rains of Britannia.

She wanted what she had once had – power, to live as she chose and to do as she pleased. And for that to happen, she set out to cater to the decadent tastes of Roman officials and senior officers of the legions. Not merely their sexual proclivities, but to create a home away from home, a place where they could relax, enjoy all the considerable comforts the house of Iolanthe had to offer, and momentarily forget the dismal realities of campaigning in a miserable climate.

Her house was not a brothel, and she owned only household slaves. Her girls and boys were freed slaves, since she had long ago discovered that the best way to motivate people was through money rather than intimidation. It was not an inn either, since the only way to gain entry was by personal invitation from Iolanthe herself, and she invited her “guests” only after careful – and personal– investigation.

Instead, it was like the best kind of private residence, where everyone present was concerned with one thing – to keep you happy, to keep you entertained, and to offer you a sensual experience unlike any other you had ever had before, or ever would again, except, of course, at her house.

Iolanthe was not a Syrian for nothing. Her list of sexual secrets would have made Martial blush and Ovid look like a complete dilettante, and she made sure that her girls and boys – never younger than ten, no older than twenty – knew at least as much as she herself, if not more. They were expected to master all aspects of pleasure and to know how to please all senses. They were usually, apart from being beautiful, accomplished musicians, masseurs, gifted conversationalists. Whatever it took to keep a guest happy, whatever desire, urge or fantasy that needed indulging, they did. Whatever they didn’t know on arriving, she took great care to teach them.

It wasn’t cheap, which was how Iolanthe had become very, very rich in three short years. Her money was sent back to her former Alexandrian lover and invested for safekeeping, and whatever was left she used to keep up her house to her own opulent standards. Her cook was superb, bought at enormous expense from the Palatine kitchens. Her musicians had been with her since her days as a dancer, and like everything else, they were the very best that money could buy.

As she saw it, she had been born with every disadvantage in life, including being a woman. Long ago, her face, body and her talent for dancing had been her only fortunes, and she had always known they wouldn’t last forever. It had been up to her to safeguard her future against the day her face gave out and her body began to decay.

But after nearly forty years and meticulous care, that day had not happened just yet. Now, they didn’t even matter, except it made business that much easier. She had discovered that men would agree to anything at all if you knew what to do with them and when and how to do it and she made them more than happy to pay dearly for the privilege of her company.

There. Perfection. Not for her that dowdy hairstyle the Empress had made so fashionable. She preferred keeping her black, curly hair in a simple chignon, pinned with her beryl hairpins. Not a touch of gray. Sage water and walnut shells made sure of it. She adjusted her long earrings, gave the mirror one final look and wrapped her shawl just a bit tighter.

So, then. She looked at the list of tonight’s clients. It was going to be a slow night. Marra, an officious visiting senator at the Palace, who liked to be whipped. Nereis would be happy to oblige, and he would be far too grateful not to pay her asking price of four thousand sesterces. Castor, the Imperial chamberlain. He preferred boys, usually two or three at a time. In the privacy of her bedroom, Iolanthe rolled her eyes. Pederasts were so boring and predictable. But catering to Castor served one very important purpose – he kept the Caesars Antoninus and Geta away from her house, and made certain they did not even know of her. Brutes, both of them, nowhere refined enough or old enough to appreciate the pleasures her house had to offer.

Finally, her absolute favorite. Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, in Eboracum for his final report and discharge. He was bringing a friend, one Lucius Sabius Niger, whom she had never met, and strictly speaking, that violated one of her iron-clad principles to vet every man who walked through her door. Then again, Gaius Arrius was leaving Britannia for Rome, and he was…special. Not just for the thousands he had spent, not for his status and his future political connections that would keep her out of the public eye and that cursed register. Not for his lively personality or his easy laugh. No. It was none of those things. He had become Iolanthe’s favorite for a very private, personal reason.

In the course of her career, Iolanthe had known more than her share of senators, wealthy business men, powerful and influential freedmen. Nearly to a man, they were all older, balding, corpulent and sagging, expecting their pasty, flabby bodies to be the equal of any current Adonis causing a sensation in Rome and rousing any woman to the very heights of ecstasy. In order to survive, Iolanthe had done what any woman would have done in similar straits, what many women always did. She thought about the young men she saw, at the games, on the streets, at the baths. Young men, preferably fair and tall, men like the Germans who stood guard at the Palatine in Rome, men with easy smiles, broad shoulders and firm, young bodies. Dark, swarthy Syrians left her cold. She had had enough of them, and more than enough. And the very finest example of her private fantasy, the one who embodied all that she found desirable in a man had been – Gaius Arrius.

Another look at her reflection in the hand mirror. Perhaps, she thought, a dab of honey at the center of her mouth, so flattering…

But Gaius – she was one of the few allowed to call him by his first name – was…beautiful. He was built like one incomparable statue she had seen, made by the famous Praxiteles, and Greek sculptors certainly knew a thing or two about celebrating male beauty. He was her favorite for no other reason that she felt privileged to just be in the same room with him and ogle to her heart’s content, and Iolanthe was not often contented. Men just did not understand. To appreciate the wide lines of a perfectly proportioned shoulder, the elegant curve of back and leg, to comprehend the meaning of that wonderful Greek word, callipygian, the great v-shaped contour from hip to…

No, they would never understand. That took a connoisseur like herself, to realize that merely looking at beauty sometimes had rewards of its own that mere possession never did. He wasn’t particularly vain, and that had been a surprise. Most men of his position usually were. Best of all, he was fun to be around. He always made her girls laugh, and that was another thing she loved about him. She cared about those girls, and cared for them. Not so very long ago, she had been one of them herself. Besides, she had always been partial to the scent of malabathrum. Malabathrum reminded her of the only other man she had ever loved apart from her son.

Nestor, her majordomo, appeared at the door. Nestor had been with her since she had been a young girl in Antioch, and without him, she would never have become what she was. He knew most of her secrets, and all of her moods. Tonight, there was a twinkle in his eye.

“Domina, Gaius Arrius is at the door, with his friend, Lucius Sabius Niger. Marra sent a message that he would be delayed – some dinner at the Palace, the slave said, so don’t expect him until later. Castor has already been shown to the blue suite with his usual boys.”

“Good. Prepare the red suite, I think, for Gaius Arrius, and inform Helena, Chryseis and Boadicea to be ready after supper. I shall be down in a moment.”

Nestor closed the door behind him.

Iolanthe reached for a small clay pot on her dressing table and added a dab of Hymettan honey to her lips. Another dab or two, this one an attar of roses so true to their scent that immediately, the whole room was filled with their perfume.

One last look at her hand mirror.


Gaius Arrius appreciated nothing less.

A Market Day Reunion

It was market day in Eboracum, and the city was teeming with people from all over the surrounding countryside, and from every corner of the Empire to sell their wares. The sun was shining from a cloudless September sky as Arrius made his way across the river and through the crush of people and stalls surrounding the forum.  Since Severus had moved the Imperial court, Eboracum had changed and grown, and was no longer the sleepy outpost market town it was when he had arrived six years before. Temples were being built, the praetorium had been expanded to accommodate the Imperial household, the baths had been recently renovated to new standards of luxury, and everywhere he looked, orders were being shouted on scaffolding, construction sites cluttered the already crowded streets, piles of marble tiling and carts of cement had to be sidestepped.

He had spent the night before with his colleague in the VI Augusta, Quintus Stertinius Afer, reliving the last campaign and Afer had graciously let him store his baggage until one of Iolanthe’s slaves could fetch it.

All along one side of the Forum, the market stalls were doing a brisk trade. Open amphorae of olives in every color and every grade of olive oil, dried apricots and dates from Africa, wine in both amphorae and smaller wineskins, the local ales and meads in barrels, pots and skins, large bolts of the colorful checked and striped local wool, vegetables, cabbage, rosy apples and blushing pears packed in straw-lined baskets— all were being picked over by hordes of women, babbling away in Briton and Latin, while their children were chased all over the Forum by slaves and a happy, barking gang of dogs. Beyond, the poultry sellers were pitching their feathered wares, yelling “Nice and plump and good to eat!” over the din of the fishmongers nearby weaving away the flies from yet more rush baskets stuffed with local perch, pike and salmon, and clay pots filled with seaweed and salt water containing the superb oysters and shellfish of Britannia. Close by, a large band of cats were making a nuisance of themselves in hopes of free fish, and judging by the pile of regurgitated fish bones underneath the table, the fishmongers had been happy to oblige.

At the Forum Boarium, cattle and sheep were being inspected, bought and sold, some of them wearing flower wreaths, sporting gilded horns and a very inflated price. “Prime bulls for sacrifice! No gods could refuse such favor!” shouted one enthusiastic cattle seller.

He walked past the jewelers’ row, their handiwork set against dark blue cloth, the bronze and enamel glittering in the sun, and the bakers’ stalls, fragrant with fresh-baked breads, cakes and cinnamon-scented pastries dripping with honey, nuts and defrutum. An enterprising Gaul was proclaiming the excellence of his Samian ware to a few skeptical women; “Ladies, you can use this in a baker’s oven, and it won’t even chip! Yes, I know, I know, you think five sesterces is a lot for a dinner plate, but today I’ll make you a very special offer and even throw in this handsome platter for free if you buy a set of four …”

Some local youths were fingering the edge of swords on display at the blacksmiths’ row, arguing the edge wasn’t sharp enough, while a few blacksmiths were busy repairing cooking pots and bridle bits.

He knew he was getting close to the baths when he reached the perfumers and flower stalls. Row upon row of oil flasks and strigils, pumices for smoothing the skin, small terracotta pots of the soap most Britons preferred, stibium, rouge in every shade of red, face creams in small soapstone boxes and a heady mix of perfume oils assaulted his nose. Malabathrum, his personal favorite, cassia, cinnamon and clove oil, Royal perfume and flowery Panathenaean perfume, spikenard and saffron and every permutation of flower from attar of roses to iris, violet and lavender all combined to make him nearly dizzy in the early morning sunshine. Nearby, the flower stalls exploded with color, crammed with bouquets and nosegays, garlands and wreaths “perfectly suitable for both temples and parties!” the seller shouted out to the women who clucked over the expensive prices of the perfume sellers.

On his arrival the day before, Arrius had sent a message to the mansio where Lucius was staying, to meet up by the statue of the Emperor Claudius by the public baths. He bought a meat pastry from a nearby stall and sat down on the statue’s plinth to eat it. Above stood the impassive figure of Claudius, the man he could thank for being here in the first place. He had the good looks of all the Julii, and the very worried face of none of them. Poor Claudius, thought Arrius to himself. Having spent six years here, he knew exactly just how much Claudius, the conqueror of Britannia, had had to worry about. And all of that – Arrius glanced up at Claudius, his mouth full of pastry – brought down by a dish of mushrooms!

A distinctive voice was apologizing its way through the press of people outside the baths.

“Oh my, I am sorry, lady, did I step on your toes? How could I have overlooked such delicate feet? I do apologize, really! It’s so hard to avoid, do you know, with all these good people here on market day, and…No, no, not at all!” and as the crowd and a very large Briton lady parted to let the voice through, Arrius jumped off his perch and stood up, brushing off crumbs from his tunic.

“Edepol! What a crush! Hades, is that really you, Carrot?”

Lucius Sabius Niger would never be a man to make the women swoon, but what he lacked in beauty, he more than made up for in charm and character. Like all his Sabine ancestors, he was dark and swarthy, with curly, unruly hair already showing signs of receding, and a slight, lanky build that would remain lanky until the day he died. In his fourth best tunic with the green braid trim, his hairy legs and his large feet, he could pass for anything from Lusitanian to Greek.

But to Arrius, he was the closest thing he had ever had to a brother, and the one man in the world he would trust with his life or his wife, if he had one. Then again, Lucius was a notorious flirt. Well then, his life, at least.

“Of course it’s me, old sheep! Who’d you expect?”

“I think I expected you to show up in full military kit, plumed helmet and everything, or else with woad tattoos and lime paste in your hair!  Gods, man, what do you think I expected?”

They both stepped back a moment and gave each other a long, hard look. Six years had changed them both, and it showed. To Lucius, who had grown up seeing Arrius every day of his life, he was no longer the too-tall, gangly, awkward youth he had been, that last day on the docks of Puteoli.  If anything, he was even taller now, but his body had filled out and grown broader, his face showed much more character in angles and planes it hadn’t had six years before, and rather than the half-embarrassed, shy stance he had once had, he now stood straight as a spear. Six years in Britannia, three of those as senior tribune, had turned Gaius Arrius into a man, and a very good-looking one at that. The bright red coloring of his childhood had mellowed to a slightly lighter red, just a thought darker than the terracotta crocks in the perfumers’ stalls behind him. He looked, thought Lucius, like a German, but in much better boots.

Arrius, too, noticed the changes in Lucius. All the time he had spent at sea had turned his skin deep brown, and the sun, wind and sea had etched faint lines into his skin around his eyes. In fact, thought Arrius, his eyes were what had changed most about him. Lucius had always had a sparkle in his eyes, but now that sparkle was replaced by something else – a certain cynicism that hadn’t been there six years before. Lucius now looked like a man who had seen rather more of the world than he liked, and not liking nearly so much of it as he had expected.

But what did it matter, really? Six years…

“Six years, old sheep…” said Arrius after a long pause. Then, he broke into a huge grin, Lucius let out a loud whoop that drew looks from the women at the perfumers’ stalls, and they hugged each other long and hard.

“Do you think, Carrot, we could find a caupona somewhere with halfway passable food? You wouldn’t believe the swill they serve at the mansio…not fit to feed a dog, if you ask me! How people manage to survive here, I don’t know. The weather is filthy, the food is awful, the Britons are strange and there are far too many sheep for my liking!”

“I thought all those sheep would have made you feel right at home! But Britannia does have one good thing…the women…”

“So you say…so you say…but how would I know? I went to a brothel the other night over by the Forum, and I wasn’t too impressed with the quality of the merchandise.”

“All in good time, sheep, all in good time. I’ve got a better idea than a caupona – how about a picnic down by the river? It’s market day after all, and the sun is shining. Trust me, you learn to make the most of it when it actually does shine…Come on, I know the perfect spot.”

In short order, Arrius marched Lucius through the food stalls and out the other end, loading up a wicker basket with a roasted chicken, bread, olives, radishes, and some beautiful pears, along with a very large skin of passable Gaulish wine, and then settled beneath a willow tree by the grassy riverbank overlooking the bridge and the garrison of the VI Augusta to the north and east.

It was a glorious, warm September day. Boats laden with food and supplies for the VI Augusta plied the river, orders were shouted out over at the garrison, and the cries of the market vendors were heard over the babble of Briton, Latin, Greek and all the other languages of the Empire.

For a long time, they were silent as they worked their way through the contents of the basket. Six years, thought Lucius, was a long gap in time to bridge, and he didn’t know where to start. So much had happened to both of them, so much…

Arrius broke the silence first. He took a hard pull at the wineskin, belched, wiped his mouth on his tunic sleeve, and sighed.

“So, brother – how is he?”

Lucius needed no clarification and less prompting.

“He’s getting old, Carrot. In as perfect health as can be expected, and now you’re gone, he doesn’t remain at the villa, but goes to Rome and his seat in the Senate every month or so on the mail boat to Ostia. Every so often, one of his clients will come down from Rome, or he’ll receive a visit from Dio, who usually stays a few days. But do you know, I rather think he misses you. He never says much about it, but Phoebe sometimes catches him in your old bedroom, sitting on your bed with your old toy sword in his hands, for hours at a time.”

“Sounds ominous…”

“It does, doesn’t it? But other than that, your father seems much the same as always, apart from his hair, of course, which has gone entirely silver by now. As I said, he’s getting old.”

“Well, he’ll be, let me see…fifty-five this coming November, on the Ides…No longer young, to be sure. Only slightly older than Galba, my old legate.”

“And we now have twenty six years on us, Carrot…you in Junius, me in Julius. I suppose we should be settling down with families and other headaches soon…”

“Carrying on the great names of the families of Arria and Sabia into posterity…Gods, so long as I never have to marry someone like that bitch Sulpicia…”

“She really was a piece of work though, wasn’t she? Rumor has it her husband Gentianus will make senior consul next January.”

“Really? That should keep her happily occupied, hobnobbing with the Empress and all those snobs at the Palatine…” From the acid tone in Arrius’ voice, Lucius thought he should change the subject, or at least divert his best friend’s attention. He had just the thing.

“As a matter of fact, Carrot, I have a letter from your father.” He reached underneath his tunic and pulled out a waterproofed leather letter satchel, sealed with the thick wool thread and blue wax starburst seal of Marcus Arrius. He dumped it into Arrius’ lap with a flourish.

“Here…you read it. I’m going to hunt down the latrines…”

Arrius had to laugh.

“Through the gates, past the metalworkers’ row, turn left, and there they are.”

“Five days in Eboracum, and finally I know where they are! No wonder I’ve been so constipated! And I thought it was all that horrible food!”

Still laughing, Lucius headed off toward the city gates.

Arrius focused his attention on the letter satchel. He broke the seal, cut the thread with his belt dagger, and opened it up.

There were two letters inside, rather than the one he had expected. One large roll, with an olivewood handle, and another, smaller roll. Something else, too…something that glittered.

He drew out a heavy, circular cloak brooch made of rose gold, with a swirling, curving embossed pattern along one edge enameled in red, and with a large, green cabochon stone that faded into an amethyst purple on the pin. He turned it over. Even on the back, that same whirling, swirling pattern undulated along the edge, where no one but its owner would ever see.

He had been in Britannia long enough to know where it came from. That gold, not yellow in tone like most of the gold he knew, but red – that could only have come from Hibernia. Gold objects were rare there, and gold jewelry made from Hibernian gold rarer still. The gold wasn’t much worn, so it could not have been so old, or else it had been carefully kept. What it meant, being there among his father’s letters, he didn’t know.

He dropped it into his lap, and pulled out the two letter rolls. The thin letter was a bank draft for two million sesterces, made out to Gaius Arrius Nerva Rufus, son of Marcus Arrius Nerva, drawn on a bank account of a bank in Gades, that also, the letter stated, had offices in Alexandria, Londinium, Rome, Puteoli, Smyrna, Lepcis Magna, Carthage, Antioch and Massilia.

Two million sesterces – enough to buy two Senate seats, a large estate almost anywhere in the Empire, a respectable summer villa in Positanum by the sea…

He was already a senator, so he had no need of that. But two million sesterces! What in the name of the Gods had prompted his father to give him such a sum?

Best to read that letter!

One thing his father had never stinted on, and that was good quality paper. It was silk-smooth high grade Augustan, the grade he had always preferred.

He smiled to himself. The first letter from his father in nearly six years, and here he was, obsessing about paper quality! He grabbed the handle, rolled it out, and began to read.

Cumae on the Ides of Julius

My dearest son, although you and I have not exchanged words or letters since you were first stationed in Britannia, at Deva or any of your postings on campaign, I feel it imperative to inform you of some business decisions I have made concerning your inheritance and my own property, decisions that should have an immediate impact on your own life, now that you are about to be discharged with all honors from your posting as senior tribune of the XX Valeria, and from Britannia as well.

You are soon to embark on a political career of your own, in no small part thanks to your contributions in the campaigns in Caledonia these three summers past. The Senate heard much about you during last summer’s campaign with the Emperor and all of it enough to make any father proud to have sired such a magnificent commander. Thanks to my friend Lucius Cassius Dio, I have been kept fully informed, and so, in spite of our mutual lack of correspondence, I know a great deal about your life in Britannia, and more, perhaps, than you know. Senecio, Postumianus, and even your former legate Galba have all been most forthcoming in keeping me informed of you.

But for all the good news I have been reading about you and your deeds, I fear that we are again bound for uncertain and uneasy times ahead. The rumors here in Campania, now that the Senate has been dismissed for the summer, say that Severus has not much longer to live, and that will leave the Senate, Rome, and even the Empire subject to the whims of his sons, and I have few illusions as to how that may turn out, nor, indeed, does anyone among the Senate in Rome, but what can we do? The Senate may try to govern as best it can in the face of supreme power, but in this case, that power will belong to the Emperor’s sons, and once their father is no longer there to control them, even I hesitate to think of what they might be capable of doing.

For that reason, and also because I wish to safeguard the inheritance of the last heir to the Arrian fortune, I made my own plans some time ago. With the help of Lucius Sabius Niger, who knows many, many contacts in Ostia, Gades, Puteoli, and even Alexandria, I have managed to transfer almost all of my holdings and investments to an Alexandrian trader by the name of Chryses Diodorus, who has become enormously wealthy in the Indian and Taprobane trades, thinking that would be the best option – if a rather risky one –  in attempting to safeguard what will some day be yours.

Diodorus did not disappoint me, and my initial investment paid off so well I even invested the interest my holdings gave, and so this past spring, Lucius Sabius left for Alexandria to transfer those funds to Balbius’ bank, to give you that initial legacy. For who knows what will happen once Severus is no more, or what proscriptions lie in store for a Senate that has been reduced, since the days of the Caesar Augustus, to merely do any given emperor’s bidding, fearing for their lives, their legacies and their families ? For this reason alone, I would advise you, as a fellow senator, but also as your father, to reconsider a political career. You are all that is left of the Arrian family, the rest of us either dying young on the frontiers of the Empire serving the Rome we were born into since the days of Camillus, or else being murdered during the proscriptions of Domitian and Commodus. Even your uncle Quintus became entangled in that nasty piece of business with Plautianus, and Severus nearly had him pay with his life. As you know, Quintus had too much pride to let that happen, and killed himself before he had Severus’ men do it for him. I believe that when our ancestor, the later consul Marcus Arrius Nerva, made the family fortune at the time of the wars with Carthage and Hannibal, he would have wished it to endure through time, which is why that I made the choice to shift our fortune to Alexandria, hidden behind a morass of holding companies and shadow investors in no way connected to me or my clients, all engineered by Diodorus and overseen by Lucius Sabius.

Along with the bank draft, I also send you a brooch that belonged to your mother. Even before she died seven years ago, she had told me that you should have it some day for your own. Now that you are in Britannia yourself, it is surely fitting that you should have a proper – if barbaric, to my taste – Briton brooch! It would make a fine gift for any young lady, if you would rather not keep it for yourself.

I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to you for that broken betrothal to Sulpicia. Who could have known that such depravity lurked behind such blue eyes? Certainly, she managed to fool you and me both. I had always thought myself well above being deceived by a woman, but then again, perhaps I had been too accustomed to your mother, who never deceived me, ever.

I know all about your compulsive spending at the house of Iolanthe at Eboracum, and this merely proves my point. But do consider, at least, that the time might soon be approaching when you should be settling down and starting a family of your own.


Arrius looked up a moment, head reeling from all this information. By now, Lucius had returned from the latrines, and was sitting quietly by his side under the willow tree, watching the bustling life that flowed back and forth across the bridge into and out of the garrison and the city, and up and down the rivers.

“You knew about all of this, you…you cunnus!”

“Now, now…” Lucius held up his hands, “just because I consider myself a connoisseur of said anatomy, doesn’t mean I am one…”


“Read on, Carrot. Read on.”


I have, in these recent years since your mother died, had plenty of opportunity and leisure to reflect upon our, shall we say, differences of opinion six years ago. I suppose you and I were both grieving over the sudden loss of your mother, and we both reacted in ways that have done far more damage than good. I have now realized that perhaps I treated you too harshly. Society, it seems, might have forgiven me that I bred a child on a former Monapian slave – although you and I know that she was never a slave in my eyes – but the son who meant everything to both of us will always pay the highest price for my transgression.

In closing, my son, please remember this – that no matter where you go, my home here will always be yours, and my doors as well as my heart will always remain open. I have been lonely, these seven years since your mother’s death, and you have been sorely missed.

Live well, my son, and prosper wherever you go! I hope and pray to all the Gods that you may return to me safely, and soon.


Marcus Arrius Nerva

His father’s letter had shaken him to the core, both for the news it had contained, and his father’s admission that he had over-reacted those many years ago. Knowing the venerable Marcus Arrius Nerva as he did, this had been no easy task for him. That final heartfelt paragraph had touched him more than he had realized, and suddenly, he was grabbed by an urge to see the orchards blooming in spring, to watch the olive presses pressing sunshine-scented olive oil in December, to hear the songs of the grape-pickers during the wine harvest. With a pang, his father’s letter had brought back the home of his childhood again, and it had been long and long since he had allowed himself to think about it. He suddenly had a violent urge to get very, very drunk.

            “So you knew. Well, I suppose he only let you know what you needed to know.”

It wasn’t a question, or even just a statement. But Lucius was quite some time in replying.

“As a matter of fact, I know a great deal about the family fortune, and certainly more than you ever bothered to, Carrot. As long as your allowance arrived at regular intervals and your lifestyle was secure, you didn’t care two figs worth where the money came from, did you? You just went and bought baubles for what was her name, oh! Yes, Brecca…or that stupendous inlaid bed, yes, I know all about it! Not to mention those thousands of sesterces you spent at some Iolanthe’s house here. I know everything about the ways you’ve spent your money these past six years, brother…but I also know where it came from, which you certainly don’t!”

Arrius was taken completely off guard.

“What in Hades is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, Carrot that it’s high time you removed your head from some whore’s crotch and your mind from what happened in Caledonia, that’s what! There’s more at stake here than you know. And -” Lucius gave him a long, baleful look, “six years you’ve been here, making all sorts of trouble in Caledonia, and all sorts of trouble for Antoninus. You’ve been a senior tribune, handling all sorts of correspondence as a matter of course, and yet you never bothered to write your own father once in all that time…”

“I thought he never wanted to see me again.”

“Come on, man! You’re his only son, of course he would! True, you didn’t part as a loving parent and his only son should, I’ll grant you that, but that was all to do with Sulpicia, and your father admitted as much, at least to me.”

“He said the same in this letter.” Arrius sat slumped over the letter satchel in his lap.

“Well, there you have it, then! You’ve been forgiven for that screw-up all those years ago. Actually rewarded, even! Now, splash some of that cash around like a properly dissipated Roman senator and let’s have some fun, what do you say?”

“Wonderful idea, old sheep. But there’s a lot you don’t know…” he reached for the wineskin.

“Likewise, Carrot, likewise!” Lucius crossed his arms.

Arrius removed the wineskin from his mouth in astonishment. This was news. Lucius had been so straitlaced, working for Euphanus for so long, he had been wondering. Had his favorite sheep lost his talent for trouble?

“Whatever do you mean?”

At first, his answer was a filthy look.

“You’re repeating yourself, Gaius. Phillipus taught you better than that!”

“ ‘The measure of a man lies in his vocabulary. The larger his vocabulary, the more precise his speech will be, and the less he will be misunderstood by his fellows.’ ” they quoted in unison.

There was a long, pregnant pause. Then, they both fell back to the ground laughing at the memory.

“Ah, brother…” Arrius finally caught his breath and sat up. He took a long pull from the wineskin, before passing it on.

“I’m in deep, deep trouble. Galba was saying that I might be a candidate for one of the quaestores Augusti, which means that Severus has plans for me. But wouldn’t you know, with my spectacular talent for making a spectacle of myself, Antoninus wants me dead for capturing Cadaracus in Caledonia, and now Severus, the one man I might have counted on to protect me from his own despicable son, is dying, or so I hear…”

“Trouble!” agreed Lucius. He belched, and reached for a handful of olives. It was a while before he could answer.

“Well, I’m deep in some horse manure of my own. All those years on ships and in ports on Euphanus’ behalf let me squirrel away some emergency funds…”

“How much?” What a relief, thought Arrius. Lucius had always had a supreme talent for stirring things up.

Spitting out an olive pit, Lucius went on.

“About a million and a half sesterces that neither Euphanus nor the Treasury knew about.”

Arrius whistled. “That’s a tidy little fortune!”

“No kidding!” Another huge belch. Whoever knew they’d have olives this good in faraway Britannia?  “Well, somehow it came to the attention of Castor…”

“That Palatine snake at the Imperial court? Severus’ chamberlain?”

“If he looks like a Greek and acts like a cat…”

“The very man…”

“That’s him all right. Turns out he bribed one of my trusty Greek captains to hand over both sets of shipping logs, the official one Euphanus knew about, and the one I’d used to cover my tracks, which was just smelly enough to make him suspicious. So, he summoned me here to explain.”

Arrius sighed. “So that’s why you happened to be here in time for my formal discharge. Of course, you couldn’t explain a million and a half in missing luxury taxes…”

“Which means that Castor has me in a death grip by my nuts. I do what he’s asked me to do, and no one’s the wiser, certainly not Euodus, or even Euphanus. I pay him, and not the Treasury. Or else…”

“He ships you off for tax evasion and worse to Euodus, who’s never been known for his compassion. Ah, brother, what a mess…”

“You now know it all…”


“The smelliest kind you can imagine!” Lucius belched again, louder, to emphasize his point.

“What does he want? The money back?” Arrius was worried now. Castor was far too dangerous to toy with.

“Too simple for the likes of Castor, I think. No, he’s got a much better idea, and one that might land him far more than my measly little assets.” Lucius spat out a whole series of olive pits.

“Put me out of my misery, old sheep. I’m too drunk for subtlety.”

“Unwatered wine will have that effect!” Another olive pit followed.

“Give me that wineskin, you lush, or you’ll only have to buy a new one that much sooner.” One huge hand gripped the neck of the wine skin.

“Me? You’re the one with a bank draft for two million, you should be buying!”

“I’ve got better ideas…Tell me what happened with Castor.”

“Castor wants me to go to Hibernia, and look up this trader, who, or so they say, practically has a monopoly on the place…”


Lucius spat out another olive pit in surprise. “How do you know?”

“I know quite a bit about Hibernia, sheep. Lest we forget, I was senior tribune for a while at Deva, you know…the XX has had plenty of business with Hibernia for a very long time.”

“Oh! Well, the plan is to unload a Gaulish wine glut on the Hibernians, or at least their kings, as they call themselves, and use that to buy Hibernian merchandise at a discount, and then…”

“And then sell it all at premium prices here in Britannia, where the main market for Hibernian goods lies, and let Castor pocket the difference.” Arrius hiccupped, before adding: “Some things never change!”

“Well…” Lucius was slightly annoyed that he never had a chance to rehearse his long diatribe on the injustice of it all. “I certainly can’t tell you anything, can I? You know it all already!”

“You forget, Lucius, I have been here six years…it’s not that hard to figure out. Besides, everyone knows about Castor. He has deals scattered all over the Empire, and all of them flow straight into his very deep pockets.”

“Doesn’t help me much, since I’m the one who gets to go to Hibernia. And no one I’ve talked to had many good things to say about the place!”


Arrius sat up straighter and ran his fingers through his hair. Lucius grinned. Some things never changed. Gaius had had that same gesture when he was thinking since childhood, despite all of Phillipus’ best efforts to beat it out of him.

“Damn, old sheep, what did they put in that wine? Where was I? Ah! Hibernia! Well, what can I tell you that no one else would know? To begin with, it might look quite a bit like Britannia, so they tell me, but it’s much…wilder. There are no towns or oppida, such as you would have found here a few hundred years ago, it’s all territories and lands held by those so-called kings. More like chieftains, really, ruling – and I use that term advisedly, mind you – over a loose bunch of people, some of them relations, known as tribes. When they’re not making a nuisance on the western coast here, they’ll usually be found at each other’s throats, for reasons you cannot even begin to imagine! And before you start thinking that those ‘kings’ rule the roost on their lands, I’d like to point out that the kings themselves are ruled, more or less, by their druids.”

“I thought that Paullinus killed them all at Mona, or so said Tacitus.”

“Not at all – they simply relocated, where, I don’t know, but a good guess is Monapia. Not that the Monapians are telling. Nothing there for us, not much in the way of trade, so we leave the place alone, the Britons leave the place alone, and the Hibernians have pretty much taken over the island, although what they do there is anyone’s guess.”

“Your mother was from Monapia, she never told you anything?”

Arrius gave him a strange look.

“Well, she did call Monapia something rather odd.” He reached for a handful of olives and stuffed them in his mouth. It was a while before a series of olive pits warned Lucius that he was about to continue.


More olive pits littered the ground.

“She called it” Arrius said very carefully, “Druid Isle.”

“Interesting. What does that have to do with my going to Hibernia?”

“Absolutely nothing. But I’m warning you, Lucius, be careful of those Hibernians. They’re as slippery as live fish and twice as hard to handle.”

“I’d like to point out that I have no intentions of ‘handling’ anyone, never mind Hibernians. It’s Musa I don’t know. Well, I met him once, a long time ago in Alexandria, when he was working for Chryses Diodorus…”

“My father wrote me about him. Seems he’s everywhere. Talk about Alexandria, and someone will have something to say about Chryses Diodorus…”

“In Berenice, he’s worshipped as a god! But Musa…”

“Our frumentarius, Priscus, could tell you more about Musa. He’s about as strange as all of the Hibernians put together. For one, he’ settled quite comfortably in our old trading post on the eastern coast, and for another, he has some kind of stranglehold on those Hibernian kings, since no other traders can get a toe in that door. Why, I don’t know.”

Lucius tried and failed to keep the hope out of his voice. “Would you know how to get there?”

“Depends on how discreet you need to be. Musa’s ships ply the inner sea of the Isles all the time in the sailing season. But if you’re looking for a quiet arrival that not even Galba would know about, then your best bet would be a fishing boat. Herring season starts around the equinox, you might be able to find something then.”

Lucius shook the wineskin. Not too much left in it. He took a long pull.

“Well, it might be a good deal easier of I could persuade my best friend to come with me…I mean, he could reasonably look Hibernian, being half-Hibernian himself, he speaks the language, along with Briton, after all, and…”

“You are out of your mind, sheep. I’m supposed to report back to Rome and the Senate before January.” Arrius now looked distinctly mulish.

“I’m supposed to find a million and a half sesterces for Castor before next spring, or else poor old Tata will do much worse than kill me!”

“May I commiserate?” His mulish expression had not budged at all.

Lucius gave him a vicious shove. He was shoved right back. In no time at all, they were rolling around and around under the willow tree, shaking each other like dogs with chew bones. Somehow, Arrius ended on top of Lucius, his hands around Lucius’ neck.

“Get off me, you big brute!” protested Lucius.  “You’re bigger by at least seven inches and about 100 pounds, it’s not fair! And you have terrible breath!”

“Fair? I’ll tell you all about what’s fair – it’s perfectly fair that I kill you right this moment, sheep, just because I can!”

There was a murderous expression on his best friend’s face that Lucius had never seen before, and it made his blood run cold in an instant. He went absolutely still.

“Well,” he found himself saying, “You’ll have a lot less fun if you do, but if you must…”

It was the right thing to say. Arrius relented and rolled off. He sat up again and buried his head in his hands.

“Sorry about that.” He sounded profoundly embarrassed. “It sometimes happens when I’ve been drinking, you know, before I’m aware of it even. Started after last year’s campaign and it’s only gotten worse after this one.” He reached for the wineskin, took a sip and handed it over.

“The news in Rome was that it was, shall we say, rather bad.”

“I can’t even begin to tell you.”

“I guess not. I can only imagine what will happen if I don’t deliver the goods to Castor in the spring.”

“Jupiter! You have a one-track mind.”

“Desperation will have that effect.” Lucius hesitated. He had to ask. He didn’t know what else to do.

“Come with me to Hibernia, Carrot.”

The mule returned to Arrius’ face. “Absolutely not. Never. Ever. I have to get to Rome, I told you.”

“You know,” Lucius said slyly, “They don’t know much about Hibernia in those smart circles in Rome. Think about it, Gaius – you could be invited to free dinner parties for years if you come with me.”

“If I make quaestor Augustus, I’ll have no lack of invitations, Lucius.”

“But what about adventure? Going where few Romans have ever been, coming back alive to tell the tales, recite your deeds and regale us all with epic tales of your courage and heroism in foreign and hostile lands?”

“Forget it. I’ve said no. I can’t, and I won’t.”

“But I’d stand a much better chance if you came with me. For one thing, Musa wouldn’t be able to arrange for a nifty assassination behind my back, since you speak Hibernian…”

“Mother was from Monapia, not Hibernia, I’ve told you a thousand times.”

“So? What’s the difference?”

Arrius laughed. “Not much, really.”

“Well, for gods’ sake, Gaius, think for a moment, beyond the scope of your brilliant political career ahead, will you? Before you know it, you’ll be packed off to some auspicious marriage or other, another one of those horrendous, thin-blooded, fashionably starved Roman aristocratic ladies, someone so refined she probably pisses Falernian and shits denarii, for all I know. In no time at all, she’ll be squandering your fortune on pearls and Indian silks and breeding your heirs on the household slaves. Don’t you want one last taste of freedom before that happens? Presuming, of course, that the wretched Antoninus even lets you live long enough for that.”

One red eyebrow lifted. “My, what a bleak view you have of my future, sheep.”

Lucius stood up, brushed off the dry grass from his tunic and stretched. He was slightly unsteady on his feet. He crossed his arms across his chest and gave the man he had known since infancy a long, measuring look.

“Don’t you?”

“Well, something might happen; it might not be all that bad.”

“Exactly! Come to Hibernia with me, Carrot, that’s what will happen!”

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Never! I won’t say no again!” Again, Arrius looked stubbornly ahead into space.

“Damn right you won’t, because the next time I ask you, you’ll say yes!”

They glared at each other. Then, Arrius hiccupped, Lucius belched, and soon, they were both helpless with laughter again.

“Are we going somewhere now?” asked Lucius, once he had regained his breath.

“Yes, my friend, we are! You and I are going to the baths, to sober up and prepare ourselves for an experience you’ll find nowhere else in the Empire!”

“And then, you’re going with me to Hibernia!” retorted Lucius triumphantly.

“My, you’re persistent! No, I am not; I’m going straight down the road to Londinium, Rutupiae and from there back home to Rome.”

“What about your meeting with Postumianus?”

“That’s tomorrow morning. My stuff is at Afer’s, and one of Iolanthe’s slaves will pick it up later. We’ve plenty of time until then. Come on, sheep…there’s one wonder of Britannia you have yet to see!”

Lucius concealed a smirk. “Don’t tell me…they have tigers at the Games here!”

“No, that’s not it.” Arrius busied himself cleaning up the debris of their picnic lunch, stuffing the pilfered remains into the basket and throwing pear cores, olive pits and the chicken carcass into a patch of reeds by the river. In no time at all, there was no sign they had been there. The consummate soldier, Lucius thought to himself.

“Put me out of my misery. I’m not sober enough for riddles!”

“I…” Arrius finally stood, brushed off dirt and grass from his tunic, ran his fingers through his hair and then proceeded to do the same to Lucius with a flourish – “am taking you to the house of Iolanthe by very special appointment. She knows we’re coming, and she can’t wait to meet you. The gods know I’ve talked enough about you!”

“Is there a chance of any redheads? Preferably one or two with stupendous chests and hips that carry you all the way to Elysium?” Lucius shared Arrius’ predilection for redheads. For one thing, they were…different, and Lucius liked different. Brunettes were everywhere he went, but real redheads…

“Britannia’s finest, and in this part of the world, that means the finest in the Empire.”

“Finally, a decent brothel!” The prefect way to celebrate their reunion!

“Let’s get one thing straight, Lucius. Iolanthe is not a madam, and her house is not a brothel!”

“Horse shit, Carrot. How else can you justify spending all that cash at the place?”

“That,” announced Arrius in a pompous voice “is for me to know and you to see for yourself. You be the judge of whether or not it was worth it.”

“As long as you’re paying! I’ve heard stories about just how expensive she is.”

“I already have. You can pay at the baths.”

“Not a chance. You’ll pour a whole amphora of malabathrum over yourself if I do, and I get to pay an absolutely outrageous bill!”

“I can always share, you know. “ Arrius shifted his rucksack on his back. “Women go mad with desire when I wear it. Who knows? Even you might get lucky!”

“Only if you come with me to Hibernia!” Now, it was Lucius who looked stubborn.


“Then show up at Iolanthe’s reeking of cheap Gaulish wine, you dog! See if I care!”

Arrius was shocked. “I couldn’t. My reputation would never recover.”

Lucius sighed, a huge sigh that shook him from head to foot.

“Thanks to Castor, mine already has.”

“Oh, you…” Arrius grabbed Lucius’ shoulders and hauled him through the crowd passing through the gates.

“What was it you said a while ago? That anything can happen between now and next spring? Well, sheep, tonight you are going to the house of Iolanthe, where anything can happen between dusk and dawn, and usually does!”

Off they went through the crowd toward the baths, and beyond.

A Royal Headache

For a long time after Bestia had left, only the crackling sound of the fire and the outside sounds of late afternoon were heard in the hall. Láegaire sat deep in thought, his long legs stretched out in front of him and a dour expression on his face. Aífe had moved from her chair by Láegaire’s side to the hearth where she sat on a bench and poked absentmindedly at the embers. Lugaid was stringing his harp, and Láegaire’s son Mathgamain whittled away at a piece of yew wood, although it was anyone’s guess as to what he was making.

Aífe broke the silence.

“There will be others, Láegaire, others who will come on some trumped up excuse to make sure we have no designs on the Romans or the Britons in Britannia.”

“Aye, Aífe, there will be others…and that is my misery entirely – that there will always be Romans who come to check that my teeth are sound, my bones well-padded and my hooves are not rotting! And every single one of them will learn what manner of man is Láegaire the Black and what manner of king as well. They will learn –” Laoghaire sat up straighter and eyed his son, shedding flakes of yew all over the polished floorboards – “that I am neither a sheep to be led blindly nor a docile bull to do as the Romans command.”

“Or…” Lugaid said, “a fool to use the Romans as it suits you and then to turn on once they have fulfilled your purpose. Think of the trouble Ciarán now finds himself in.”

“Indeed.” Láegaire shrugged, Bestia and the Romans already forgotten. He had more imperative matters to attend, and his son was first among them. “I have other issues on my mind. For instance…” he went on in his most casual, off-hand voice, the voice that made Aífe and Lugaid look up sharply at their King’s change of tone, “time it is, my son, for you to find a suitable wife.”

Mathgamain groaned. “Gods, Father, not again!”

“Yes, Mathgamain, again! I shall not rest until I know you are to wed, some suitable alliance with a suitable girl who shall give you some proper children to your name and your tribe, and not the countless offspring you have been so busy making with any woman who asks!”

“Och, the sheer, unrelenting tedium of having to bed the same woman every night!”

“I was wed to your mother for one and twenty years, young man, and I can assure you I was never bored!”

“That,” stated Mathgamain flatly, “was because it was Mother, who was surely not at all like other women!”

Láegaire had to laugh. “No, she was not, and Connachta women never are. But that was your mother and I, and this is now and here are you. The Eoghan need to find some suitable alliance – nothing threatening, say, oh, a ríg tuatha from one of the other provinces, and not a Laighean lass mind, or there will be yet more trouble than is already staring me down. You have reached an age to marry, and there are other matters to consider…”

Mathgamain interrupted him. “Father…there is so much more that is far more important than finding me a suitable wife! To the north, you have Ciarán mac Broccan, worrying the Romans in Britannia and playing both sides of that fence. Who is to say he will not call in for help should he decide he wants to take what we have so long fought to hold? To the south, there is the vile Fionnbarr mac Adamnan, and you know that Fionnbarr has never forgiven you for slaying his father three summers ago! He has stayed behind his borders and he has stayed his hand, but we all know he is just waiting for an excuse, or an opportunity, to attack.”

“Indeed he is,” said Láegaire, “and you are to be commended for your part in keeping both Fionnbarr and Ciarán’s men away this summer past. But I said –” he dropped his voice again, and Mathgamain braced himself – “there are other matters to consider. The time has come, or else the time will not be long in coming, that the tribes of the Eoghan shall have to choose their Tanist, and there is no other we have, unless we go to Donn and the Mumhain Eoghan, and they know nothing of Laighin and the battles we face.”

Mathgamain was startled. His father had been king of the Laighean Eoghan for over twenty years, and Gods willing might well be for yet ten more. Why this haste to elect a Tanist? Had his father – or Aífe, more like – seen something he had not? He tried another tactic. Anything to make him forget all this nonsense talk of marriage, and tanists, and other matters that gave Mathgamain a headache!

“You are forgetting my sister, Father.”

“I am your father and the king of the Laighean Eoghan, Mathgamain mac Láegaire, and I forget nothing!” his father yelled.

“Lassarfhína has her own path to follow, and beside, she has neither the taste nor the inclination for war, and you do, as this summer past has proved. We need that skill in the times to come, and so we need you.”

“But surely, Father, if you are to make alliances that we could use come next battle season, then she should be your first consideration for marriage, I mean, she is only a woman…”

“And with statements like that, my son, you only prove she is worth ten of your ilk! I have said this before, and I say so again – her fate is neither yours nor mine to decide, so leave it at that.”

Mathgamain stood and threw his wood knife and the small block of yew on the hall table.

“Leave it? How can I leave it at that? You are about to decide my future entirely, all as neatly tied up as wool for the dye pot, that I shall become Tanist, that I shall marry, that I shall succeed you as King of the Eoghan even, lead us all victorious in war against all our foes and neighbors, and all the while my horrible sister gets to do entirely as she pleases, when she pleases, and with whomever she pleases! Where, oh mighty King of the Eoghan, is the justice of that? Oh, why should I even concern myself anymore? It has never been a secret that you prefer her over me, ever since Mother died…” Mathgamain turned his back, hunched his shoulders and began walking toward the doors, muttering under his breath as he went.

Láegaire became even more incensed.

“Mathgamain! You do not turn your back on your father or your King, and you do not leave until such time as I say you may! You will sit down this instant and you shall listen to what I have to say, or I will have Gobbán draw his sword and slay you for your lack of respect! Sit!”

Mathgamain skulked back to the bench and tried to stare Laoghaire down, mutiny all over his face.

It took several moments for Láegaire to regain his composure. Aífe had suddenly chosen to busy herself mending one of Ethni’s tunics, and Lugaid was preoccupied with adjusting his strings. Erc, meanwhile, had fled the hall, and Gobbán and Daire, his guards, were deliberately focused on the faha outside the doors. This is one of those moments, he thought to himself, where I wonder why I received my children with such joy, when they give me such headache now!

“Mathgamain, listen to me. I am not recommending marriage because I wish you to be bored, you understand. I am saying…there are other matters to consider here, and any marriage of yours will play its part. Samhain Assembly at Tara is coming again, and the kings of Erin must again decide which laws to uphold and alliances to make. Also…” Láegaire took a deep breath. There was no simple way to say this, but say it he must.

“We do not have much time. Great changes are coming to the Eoghan, and to each and every one of us, and we must all be prepared to face them, even you.” He leaned forward and looked his son in the face, so like his own.

“Perhaps I should say…you, in particular. For Aífe has seen for all of us, and my own time is ending, whereas yours is beginning.”

Aífe never stirred. Her only movement was the needle pulling through the fabric of Ethni’s tunic.

What anger Mathgamain had felt was immediately blown away by his father’s words, and now he was confused.

“Seen, Father? Seen what, exactly?” He turned to Aífe.

“What have you seen?”

His father waved it off.

“All in good time, Mathgamain, all in good time. For now, let me say that Samhain Assembly is coming, and change is coming, and the tribes of the Eoghan need to be prepared. By Beltain, at the latest, we need to celebrate a marriage for you, and we need to have you proclaimed Tanist. Already, they are muttering in their halls, those kings of Laighin, that the Eoghan might become a sweet and juicy apple, ripe for the picking come next battle season! Meanwhile, we have Ciarán on our border to the north, in a dangerous mood, and Fionnbarr to the south, bent on vengeance for his father’s death, and he bides only his own time.”

Láegaire shifted on his bench. He never should have killed the wretch, and yet he had.

“If we can prove to the Laighean kings at Samhain Assembly, that the Eoghan are still strong, that we still own the favor of both Ír and Mac Con, that we have provided for the future by electing you as my Tanist, and that we intend no slight by choosing to ally ourselves with some minor, faraway tribe, in say, Moma, Connacht or Ulaid, then perhaps they might think again before they attack.”

And should I become King, Mathgamain thought to himself, I shall have to remember these things, and to master them all…to take the full blame when anything goes wrong, from the harvest to a cattle raid, and to provide for four tribes beside my own. Gods, such a headache…

“And my sister?” he asked after a long pause. “Why should you not make some marriage for her as well, since she is old enough to marry off? If we need allies so badly to keep the other kings of Laighin in check, then should she not become another part of our plans?”

To his surprise, it was Aífe who replied. She looked up from her sewing.

“Lassarfhína was always a part, Mathgamain, and always will be. All I can say is that there is a geis upon her, and neither her fate nor her marriage is our decision to make. Leave it at that.”

Mathgamain was angry all over again.

“Always, she is left off easily, and always, I have to pay! Why can you not all just say that you prefer her to me and be done with it? Why not just choose her to rule us, since you are all so preoccupied with her virtues and my vices? You should proclaim her Tanist instead of me!”

Ever since the death of their mother three years before, Mathgamain had felt slighted and belittled by his sister and the way she commanded their father’s affections. It was nothing new, and it would never be old, so long as they could war with each other, they would. Láegaire almost laughed at his son’s outrage.

“Because she has her purpose, and you have yours. Leave it at that.”

“I have a much better idea, Father…why do I not just leave altogether?”  Mathgamain stormed out of the hall. The double doors were open, or he would have slammed them.

“What are you two staring at?” he yelled at Gobbán and Daire. They averted their eyes and studied the grass on the faha, and said nothing in reply.

“Always my wretched, cursed sister!” he muttered as he made his way down the hill.

In the hall, Láegaire grabbed his aching head and slumped on the bench.

“Why, oh why, drui, do those two hate each other so?”

Aífe laughed.

“They do not, Láegaire…they war with each other for the same reasons all Erinnach do – because they can! And to be fair…Mathgamain has a point, you know. Whether you admit it or no, you do prefer your daughter over your son.”

“Only because my son thinks of nothing but hurley, cattle raids, drinking with his friends and women, rather than what he should be thinking about – that he is to become the next king of the Eoghan!” He cursed under his breath. “At least my daughter has more sense!”

“And you, my King?” Lugaid spoke up. “Were you so very different, before you became King?”

“Alas, but no. Perhaps that is why Mathgamain and I are always at odds – we are far too much alike for my comfort!”

“And there you have it, Láegaire…as you were, so your son is, and as you are, he might, with guidance and support, hope to become. As your daughter is, he shall never be.”

“Och, Aífe…perhaps Mathgamain is right and I should have Lassarfhína proclaimed Tanist of the Eoghan…for certain that all my tribes might benefit…” Láegaire had a dreamy expression on his face. It was true that he much preferred his daughter over his son; not least because she would keep her wits about her while Mathgamain would be all too preoccupied with reaching for his sword.

Lugaid put away his freshly stringed harp in its satchel.

“Do that, my King, and war will come to the tribes of the Eoghan in Laighin as surely as night will follow day. For all that Lassarfhína has no taste for battle, and even less for war, she knows all too well how to incite to it, as events at Dun Aillin this past Lughnasa have proved.”

Láegaire groaned at the reminder. “Blame her mother. Any Connachta woman from the line of Medb is certain to be at least as much trouble as she ever was! For all her virtues, my daughter also has her faults, and mainly that she is so like to Aibhlín it sometimes pains me to look at her. Pity the man with a beautiful daughter, Lugaid, for little good and far more grief shall ever come of it!”

Aífe laughed.

“I should rather pity the poor man who shall gain her as his bride! Think a moment – her mother’s looks and demeanor, and that quite bad enough. But then add the very bullheadedness you call your own which comes to her straight and unwatered, and there you find her. She shall be no easy conquest for anyone, geis or no!”

Láegaire rolled his eyes at the thought.

“Ah, they say that there is no plain speaking to be had from a Drui…but you are right. And at the very moment she needs a mother’s guidance most, her mother, alas, has gone on.” He gave a massive sigh. Three years had it been since the death of Aibhlín, and yet, he missed her still. Even now, when he could see her in his daughter’s every move and breath.

Aífe gathered up her sewing in a basket and inclined her head toward the door. Immediately, Lugaid rose to his feet, slinging his harp satchel over his shoulder.


The King looked up from the patch of polished floorboard he had been studying.

“Yes, Aífe?”

“Rest assured, that in her Drui your daughter shall have at least what help and advice a woman – and a Drui – can provide.”

“I know.”

Aífe turned at the doors and looked back at Láegaire sitting dejected on his bench, feet up on his footstool and his chin in his hand. It would not do, to leave her King in such a black mood.

“Pity the man who gains your daughter, Láegaire! To think – the burden he shall have in living up to a King – and a man – such as you!”

Lugaid howled and Laoghaire with him, and even Gobbán and Daire tried to hold on to their spears with straight faces. Still laughing, they made their way down the hill.

The hall was quiet again, and there was only Ruacra, Láegaire’s favorite hound, whimpering in his sleep at his feet.

For a brief moment, Láegaire thought he heard a rustle from the tapestry behind him. Then, as the back door to his bedchamber suddenly slammed shut and he caught a whiff of Roman lavender oil in the draft, he knew.

Damn you, daughter, he thought.

She had been listening since the Roman arrived.

He had to laugh.