The young man chewed slowly and thoroughly on a round of
baked rye dough. The cook from the fine house he just visited insisted Felix take the bread and a hip-flask of warm goat’s
milk with him for the journey home. The grateful slave accepted her hospitality.
Upon delivering the parchment, which
Lady Marga considered so vital, the master of the house offered Felix a bed for the night, in the slaves’ quarters.
Anxious to return, Felix politely refused. He explained to the finely robed patrician that he was needed back home. Felix
then did something he would not do under normal circumstances. Warmed by the man’s unexpected humanity and kindness,
so uncommon for an aristocrat, he also told him the reasons why he needed to go home so quickly.
The reality was he
was nervous about leaving Lady Marga alone, especially with Marcus Seneca in close proximity. Roxtonus, who was obviously
enamored of their lady - despite his none verbal claim to the contrary - would be a help but Marga needed *him*, her closest
friend and confident. Long ago Felix swore to Lord Summerles, just before his master died, that he - on his life - would be
there for her. He would be a shoulder for his mistress to cry on when matters took a turn for the worse. In his own way Felix
loved Marga as deeply as his master had. And now, Felix anticipated a lot of “worse” was on the way.
into the rye once again and thinking of his and Titus’ last stopover, Felix recalled the fine home and its master’s
pleasantly plain brow knitting with concern as he read part of the document given to him by Lady Marga. The master listened
to Felix concerns as he read, sitting in a high backed chair and studied the Ambrosia Hill seal. He then thoughtfully nodded
and told Felix that he would look into the matter and get back to Lady Marga soon.
Felix held Titus’ reigns,
walking the horse leisurely up the well traveled road, allowing both man and beast to rest a bit before he mounted and they
galloped once again home. They would be at the villa soon, probably within a four hours. The sun had not yet broke over the
horizon. Felix assumed they would make it to the stable close to mid morning.
Titus snorted beside him and Felix pulled
off a small portion of the bread. Carefully, he fed it to the horse. “You’ll be rewarded well when we return,
old boy.” he assured the animal. Felix chuckled when Titus nuzzled his cheek in appreciation.
head suddenly snapped upward and he stopped moving, alarmed.
“What is it, boy?” Felix asked, listening.
began to back up, agitated, and he whinnied in fear.
A branch snapped in an adjoining wooded area and, alarmed, Felix
shuddered. He held onto Titus reigns but the horse was becoming increasingly difficult to hold. “Titus, what’s
going on?” he asked, believing for a brief moment, in his fear, that the beast could answer him with words.
stallion then reared up, breaking free, and bolted. Felix was knocked down and left alone in the dark. Muttering quietly to
himself Felix got up, cursing the animal, and stood erect. He then began to stumble forward, nursing a slightly twisted right
foot. He knew Titus was headed down the correct trail and would make it home to Ambrosia Hill before him.
“Who is there?!” Felix shouted, his tone high and nervous.
A low cat-like growl met his
“Oh, my gods.” he whispered.
“If anything had happened to you …”
he whispered, holding her hand as she sat at the edge of his bed. A bare-chested and slightly perspiring Malones lay on the
comfortable mattress, a blanket pulled up to his midriff, and stared at the woman he adored. The sun shone through a window,
backlighting Verona, her hair glistening, causing Malones to think of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love.
be silly. I *wasn’t* the one in danger.” she replied, chuckling softly. Verona’s expression was much brighter
then last evening when she was terrified that Malones’ injury could be fatal. There was nothing to fear she realized
this morning and felt as if a huge weight had been removed from her shoulders.
Although his legs were stiff and the
scratches painful Malones would recover with little scarring. His head hurt like the trumpets of Ihy were blowing in his ears,
from the blow received, but he knew he had gotten off lucky. They both did. Malones would be on his feet again, albeit moving
slowing, by tonight, possibly evening this afternoon, in time for the feast. “Do you think it made a difference? Will
she look at me differently now?”
Verona, squeezed his fingers and was about to speak when another voice interrupted
“Is that what you intended all along?” A short distance away Roxtonus stood, leaning heavily against
a tapestry covering a cool stone wall. The art work behind him depicted a baby in its crib and when Roxtonus first entered
he wondered about the illustration. He felt as if he had entered a nursery until he looked closer and saw the embroidered
dead serpents. They were lying on a violet painted floor beside an older male child. Obviously the story had something to
do with the Greek legend of Hercules – the strong man of myth – and how as a baby he slew the snakes that nearly
killed his brother. Roxtonus remembered being told that story when he was a boy and there were times, as an adult, he wished
– like Hercules – he could have rescued his own brother in the same heroic fashion.
do you mean, Roxtonus?” Verona asked, noting how focused he seemed.
“I find it very interesting that the
two of you just happened to be there to rescue Lady Marga when, as we all know, she does not like you, Malones.” He
gauged the younger man’s angry expression and continued, “You say you were out on the grounds? What were you doing
“Talking.” Verona said, quickly, “Honestly, that’s all.”
what you mean, Roxtonus!” Malones insisted with a grimace, raising himself up on his elbows.
be quite a crease in your toga if you were to *save* the mistress of Ambrosia Hill. Such an act of selfless heroism might
convince her that she’s been wrong about you all along, Malones. It might even convince her that a marriage between
you and Verona, the Lady’s favorite of all her female slaves, wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.”
son of a bitch!” Malones growled, insulted by the accusation.
“Malones!” Verona squealed, unnerved
by Roxtonus appearance and feeling guilty. She should not have been outside of her quarters last evening; least of all with
Malones. After all, she was not only a subordinate but also an engaged woman. “You shouldn’t …”
you hear what he’s saying?!”
“Yes but, darling, if I didn’t know better, I’d wonder the
same thing.” She placed fingers underneath Malones chin and made him listen to her, “We had everything to win
by saving Lady Marga and truly very little to lose.”
Malones stared at her, unbelieving. “Do *you* think
I arranged to have that tiger escape and attack Lady Marga?”
“No, of course not!”
Malones.” Roxtonus moved forward, a hand resting on a bureau next to his bed. “I don’t think you did it
“Then why …?” Malones began in exasperation.
“I wanted to be certain;
to see how you’d react. You’re not the enemy. You’re brave, somewhat foolhardy and have far too much moral
character to be involved in the cold blooded assassination of another. And, I might add …” he smiled at Verona,
“… you have great taste in sensible women.”
Verona returned his smile, “I gather from what
you’re saying here that you don’t think the tiger escaped by accident.” She surmised, “Why?”
lifted a hand to scratch the back of his head then turned away from them to hide the dejection chasing across his face. “I
had insomnia last night.” They did not need to know why he could not sleep. Roxtonus still felt Lady Marga’s kisses
against his lips and shoulders and hated that he could not keep the memory of her touch from his mind. “Early this morning,
while it was still dark, I walked the perimeter. I found Challenger lying unconscious near the tigers’ cages.”
Verona looked appalled.
“He had a bump of the back of his head the size of a chariot wheel bolt. When I woke
him up he told me he was investigating around the cages and was hit from behind. I’m sure it was done by the same person
who lifted the latch and let the tigers loose. You Malones,” Roxtonus reminded, “were in no position to get out
of bed, let alone walk back to the cages and knock someone out cold.”
“And I was with him all night.”
Verona added, relieved that both were exonerated.
Malones sighed, “I guess it’s a good thing I was injured.”
He said, dimly.
“Is Challenger all right?” Verona asked Roxtonus.
“Yes. He’s resting.
He said he found evidence that suggests that Lady Marga was set up as a victim but it was gone by the time I found him.”
by whoever it was that tried to kill Lady Marga and injured Challenger.” Malones sighed his disappointment.
Verona asked: “Where is Lady Marga?”
“She’s being groomed by Lydia.” Again, Roxtonus
tried to sound indifferent but images were flooding his mind even as he tried to focus on other matters. In his imagination
Roxtonus could see her bathing and primping. The very picture of Marga’s nightdress being pushed from her shoulders,
revealing the smooth naked flesh beneath …
“Roxtonus?” Verona watched him closely, realizing he was
concentrating on something that probably didn’t have anything at all to do with tigers or danger. When he refocused
and looked down at her once again she said, “If what you say is true then she could be in terrible jeopardy during the
Roxtonus nodded very slowly and said, “I’ll need your help. Both of you.”
course.” Verona said, without hesitation, “I owe Lady Marga and will do anything to keep her safe.”
They left Malones to rest, to recuperate in time for the banquet, and walked down the hall on their way to the villa’s
“Verona, I know I’m prying but … what exactly do you *owe* Lady Marga?”
probably isn’t the right word but I’m grateful for her.”
“Why?” Roxtonus asked, genuinely
“I’ve told you part of it. She is very good to her slaves. But more than that, Lady Marga’s
earned our loyalty because most of us – the women at least – would have been bought by horrible people who merely
wanted to use our bodies for their pleasure. And I’m not just talking about intimacy. There are some slave-owners out
there that truly enjoy causing pain …”
“But you could also have ended up with another master who
would have given you the freedom to wed whoever you wanted.”
Verona looked up at Roxtonus. Did he really believe
what he was saying? Perhaps he had been sheltered away as a gladiator, fighting night after night in the arena, far too long
to realize the way things were in modern Rome. “On the day of my public sale I was involved in a confrontation with
my former master. I was furious because he had chained me to Frieda, a slave girl who was terribly ill and should never have
been put on the auction block that day. She needed nursing and bed rest. I told him about it and sounded as angry as I felt.
I knew I was going to be leaving him that day and – I suppose – felt I had nothing to lose by being disobedient.
I learned later that Lady Marga over heard our discussion. She also saw my master slap me. I did not cry out and she admired
Roxtonus concurred, recalling how she reacted in the audience when he walked to the stage with his head
up, proud and rebellious. Defiant slaves obviously intrigued the lady.
“She waited for the auction, for my appearance,
and when the last bid was from Lord Nepos,” Verona noted Roxtonus wince. There weren’t many who had not heard
of the man’s brutality through the years, to not just his slaves but his wives as well, “Lady Marga spoke up,
bidding a ridiculous sum, and bought me. She told me she admired by independence but expected me to be dutiful. If I was good,
she promised, I would always have a home with her and would never be whipped. However, if I disappointed her then she would
be forced to let me go to someone better able to keep me obedient.”
“And for the last two years you’ve
been a good slave?”
“Yes,” She looked down at her feet as they walked, “But I’ve also
Curious, Roxtonus waited for her answer.
“… a friend. Sometimes I think she’s
The comment stirred Roxtonus. Lady Marga had said as much to him last night.
Verona glanced up again to Roxtonus, “you might hear similar stories from other slaves here on Ambrosia Hill. She demands
respect but if you do well by Lady Marga she’s fair and just.”
Wavering, Roxtonus wasn’t sure how
he was going to approach his next question but he might not get another opportunity to ask Verona so he dived in: “Have
you ever noticed anything emotionally *odd* about Lady Marga?”
“What do you mean?”
Verona pondered the question, wanting to laugh at Roxtonus peculiar inquisitiveness. If she ever thought
her fiancée was smitten with their mistress she was certain of it now. “I don’t know if you would call it *strange*
…” she hesitated, “They say Lady Marga grieved deeply when her husband died. That was, of course, before
I came to Ambrosia Hill. But for the last two years I’ve been here I have never noticed her entertaining the idea of
remarrying. At least not until Lord Seneca came along.”
“She could lose her land if she marries.”
“True but I don’t *mean* just marry but …” Again, Verona hesitated.
looked at her profile and realized the young woman was blushing.
“Lady Marga has had many opportunities to be
in the company of handsome men, some slaves and others fawning suitors, but I’ve never seen her indulge. She is a very
beautiful, accomplished and strong-minded female and I *know* she has needs like everyone else -- and can satisfy them anytime
she wants. We’ve talked a little about it. But …”
“You have never seen her take a man to her
bed.” Roxtonus offered what he was sure Verona was trying not to say.
“Well … no. I never have.”
revelation hit closer to home for Roxtonus than Verona would ever know. “Are you suggesting she prefers the company
of women?” Roxtonus asked although the very thought disappointed him to the core.
“No, not at all.”
Verona said, a little taken aback that he should even ask. “I know she’s never sought the company of any of her
female slaves. I just don’t think she wants to be that close to anyone. Or maybe she’s afraid. Perhaps the death
of Lord Summerles, with whom she obviously adored, has ruined her for all men.”
If so, Roxtonus thought with
biting humor, Tribune was going to be very disappointed on their wedding night.
“I have a feeling he plans to
announce their engagement tonight.” Verona said, seeming to read Roxtonus mind, “At least, that is what he led
Malones to believe on their way here. And,” Verona cleared her throat a little, “I’m assuming that is also
when Lady Marga will be announcing *our* engagement.”
“Who would care about the engagement of a couple
“No one, usually. But Lady Marga has reasons for all she does.”
feigning interest, but he was far more intrigued with what Verona revealed earlier. Lady Marga was keeping secrets. Something
was not adding up. Marga was more than capable of passion. That he knew for a fact. Yet, he recalled the fear in her expression
– there for just a brief moment –when they started to make love last night.
Whether it was his concern
or not Roxtonus needed answers. There was something very strange in Marga’s background, a deeply hidden secret his mistress
wanted to take with her to the grave. He *had* to know what it was – for the sake of something that was, to Roxtonus,
far more important than her security and his own emotional well being.
Somehow, Roxtonus felt his future relied on