The men and women waited just outside of the large villa’s
front entrance, watching quietly as they stood on an apron of warm grey stones. The pathway was lined with rows of gently
swaying cypress trees which currently framed a slowly moving procession of carriages, wagons and muscular sentries riding
equally imposing horses.
Lady Marga had nearly her entire household staff, including Verona and ten female house slaves,
standing at attention. To her left was Roxtonus and to her right was Felix. A few of her more muscular male slaves, both guards
and field workers, were also in attendance but their presence served only as an exhibition, to honor those who were visiting,
Roxtonus, however, had a feeling the men were there as a subtle warning, although he was still in the
dark about what the lady had to fear from this particular houseguest.
Felix stood obediently beside his lady, appearing
reticent, but his expression betrayed his true feelings. “Ostentatious.” he whispered sourly, noting the gold
plated crest at the side of the carriages and on the breast plates of Tribune’s warriors. Felix spoke just loud enough
for Marga and Roxtonus to hear. He understood when they did not acknowledge his comment.
Three carriages, the front
wide-open and carrying a radiant Marcus Seneca - making a so typical garish entrance - lumbered up the long pathway. Behind
him came another covered carriage, containing his own entourage, followed by two larger enclosed wagons, flanked by his guards.
A sixth smaller wagon rolled up in the rear of the caravan.
“Marga, we have arrived!” The gold and green
robed Seneca announced and stood tall just before his carriage stopped. He hopped cheerfully and athletically from the foot
hold, his dark eyes taking in everything around him. “You are just as beautiful as you were when I left you, Darling.”
He said, noting Marga’s classy cream colored robes, silver earrings and the matching bands on her upper arms. “I
missed you.” He smiled and leaned forward.
Marga grasped the man’s hands which reached for her. However,
when he bent to kiss the woman intimately in greeting Marga quickly turned her head so that his lips brushed a cheek instead
of her mouth. “Salutations, Marcus. I see you made wonderful time. We weren’t expecting you until nightfall.”
She remarked amiably then looked over his shoulder, “And I see you brought *everyone*.”
the necessary accomplices,” Seneca chuckled civilly, pulling back. Her coolness underneath the surface warmth was not
lost on him. “Marga, my love, I’m actually stopping here after a glorious and very successful journey. I know
you’ll want to hear all about it ...” He squeezed her slender fingers a little too roughly, “But first thing
is first. I want you to meet someone.”
He continued to hold her hand as they walked to the second carriage.
from where he stood, scrutinized the man. He was tall, had piercing eyes, high cheekbones, and dark short-cropped hair. His
movements were fluid and his figure was surprisingly lean for an over indulged aristocrat. Marcus Seneca easily presented
a fašade of charm but Roxtonus sensed something hidden and very dangerous in him. Gut instinct told Roxtonus that, despite
the man’s munificent manner, if he and Lord Seneca were to ever cross swords, the former gladiator just might end up
on the losing side of their clash.
“Come on out.” Seneca called to an inhabitant of the second carriage.
A crimson cloaked man emerged and stepped down. He stood directly in front of Marga. Carefully, in no hurry, he pulled
the cloak’s hood from his head, revealing his intelligent and somewhat weary face. He allowed a spread of auburn hair
to fall loose around his shoulders. “Madam,” he bowed courteously if a little too stiffly.
is Georgmanicus Tiberius Challenger. I picked him up in Britannia last month. He’s a gentleman of great intelligence
and proved to be of superior value while I was purchasing some land on credit from the Eire Consul.” Seneca leaned in
and added confidentially, “My good name, I am sorry to say, isn’t as welcome as it once was. My consultant,”
he glanced at Challenger, “and I assured the Meathis County’s tribune that their land would only hold interest
for those filthy druid priests running rampant across the countryside recently. Them with their unholy ways and sacrifices
“Challenger.” Marga exclaimed, purposely interrupting Seneca and changing the subject. “That’s
a very unusual name, sir.”
The learned man bowed his head again, “My father’s name, Madam, and his
father’s name. I’m not truly certain of its origin.”
“But I am certain you will find out one
day.” Seneca commented, lightly. “It is truly amazing the way Challenger thinks. Honestly, the knowledge in my
advisor’s head is awe inspiring. I’ve promised to fund a few of his more interesting experiments once my situation
“Right now I am hampered by limitations.” Challenger commented, grim-faced.
my friend. Things have a way of working out.” Lord Seneca chuckled, ignoring the man’s dour manner, and gazing
steadily at the uneasy beauty before him. He then glanced over Marga’s shoulder. “I see a few new faces here as
well.” He looked openly intrigued by the presence of Roxtonus.
“A few.” Marga spoke dismissingly.
She took Seneca’s arm and steered him to the covered wagons, “Now, what do we have in here?” she asked,
“Wonderful finds in Asia Minor and Africa.” He nodded to a few of his warriors and they
pulled back the cumbersome cover of the first wagon.
A fierce roar greeted them, startling Marga as well as a few of
“Tigers?” Roxtonus came up behind the couple, having followed them, and looked into the
cage sitting on the wagon, “Two huge and unhappy beasts, I’d say.”
Seneca swiveled and looked at
the man, “Yes.” he said, wondering who exactly he was. “They’re beautiful animals, however, and I
got them at a steal. I plan to sell them to the Amphitheatrum Castrense and take home a tidy profit.”
are not unusual in the arena, Tribune.” Roxtonus commented, “You’ll need something a bit more unique than
Seneca stared at the man, an obvious inferior, for a moment. He was surprised he knew to call him by his
preferred title. “You sound like a chap who knows what he’s talking about.” Seneca comment, snidely. “Very
interesting for a *slave* to be so erudite.” He challenged, testing the newcomer.
Before her subordinate could
reply, thus making matters far more tense then they already were, Marga said: “Marcus, Roxtonus *is* very well-informed
about such things. He was a gladiator before he came to Ambrosia Hill, as my bodyguard.”
Seneca averted his gaze. The name was familiar. Wondering just how far the man’s current duties extended when it came
to the happiness and well being of his mistress, Seneca steered Marga to the second covered wagon. “I must admit that
your slave is quite correct, Marga. On the other hand,” The heavy covering was removed from the second wagon “What
do you think of this?”
There stood another tiger, its coat as white as snow, snarling its annoyance. A collective
gasp of astonishment came from the watchers in front of Lady Marga’s home.
“Is he not magnificent?”
beautiful, Marcus.” Marga was forced to agree.
Even Roxtonus was reluctantly impressed by Seneca’s acquisition.
In his lifetime he had never seen a white tiger. He doubted many people had.
“Well,” Marga clapped her
hands behind her, once again attempting to pose as the perfect hostess. She looked from the tiger to her two guests, “We
have several open rooms available for you and your companion,” She nodded at Challenger once again, “Your warriors
may bunk in with my men in the guards quarters and later …” she hesitated briefly, “… That is, after
you’ve refreshed yourself, Marcus, we will have a long talk.”
“Lovely.” Seneca said a small
but meaningful twinkle in his eye.
“And tomorrow,” she added, “we will feast. I have the makings
of a magnificent banquet being prepared as we speak. My chef is from Lyon and he assures me that the menu Felix,” she
mimed to her unsmiling companion, “has prepared will surpass even that of your last visit.”
tonight, when it gets dark, we will have a quiet meal alone together, Marga? All I ask is for a little wine, cheese, grapes
and the delectable pleasure of your company.” Seneca’s tone dropped an iota, sounding suspiciously lewd rather
than romantic. “Perhaps we can reminisce over old times and talk of the future?” He lifted her hand and pressed
her fingers to his lips.
“Certainly.” Marga responded with a weak smile.
Roxtonus caught his lady’s
momentary display of distress before she replied. As her bodyguard it was his duty to stay close to Lady Marga and keep her
out of harm’s way. Tonight would not be an exception, whether she and Tribune knew it or not.
“Oh, I nearly
forgot!” Lord Seneca called abruptly, returning to the second carriage. “I beg your indulgence, Marga, but we’ll
need a third room. My nephew joined us as we passed through the great city to get here.” Seneca pulled open the carriage
door, “He told me he’s met you so I urged him to pay another visit …”
Out stepped a young man,
a soldier by the cut of his garments. Roxtonus eyes narrowed. He had seen him before, at Goth. He was the guard who had shown
Both Felix and Roxtonus watched as Lady Marga visibly stiffened, her expression looking as if she were
hiding an urge to scream. “Welcome.” she exhaled and spoke with a deceptive calm, her fingers balling into fists.
Lady.” The soldier bowed respectfully, emerging as awkward.
“Malones!” Verona gasped uncontrollably
from her position in front of the villa, clasping her fingers together and smiling brightly for the first time in weeks.