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.