“We need to talk.” Lieutenant Cicero, Lady Marga’s
head of security, called to them from an open entryway which led directly into a large outside courtyard. Roxtonus and Verona,
who were on their way to the villa’s massive kitchen - where Penelope had told them Lady Marga was overseeing the makers
of the feast - wanted to candidly speak with their mistress and report what they considered suspicious activity. However Cicero’s
demeanor, the way his gruff voice held a bark of command, made a detour necessary.
Still, before Roxtonus veered he
glanced into the kitchen. Men were wearing aprons and caps and a few women, who were going to be servers during the banquet,
were sprinting about in a harried fashion.
He caught a brief glimpse of Lady Marga. Her luscious dark hair was piled
to the top of her head in a grand style, with wondrous ringlets cascading down to her shoulders. Marga’s gown was silver,
as was her jewelry, with a lovely wrap flung over one of her slender shoulder. She appeared, even while standing in the kitchen
speaking with her chef over boiling pots, the very image of beauty and sophistication.
With an unseen gulp, Roxtonus
could only stare distractedly at her for a few seconds, wondering what might have been. Verona called his name. Slowly, Roxtonus
moved into the courtyard with the young woman and Lieutenant Cicero.
Middle-aged but dedicated, tough-looking in body
armor and a helmet, Cicero said, “I was told last night that you were walking the perimeter when Lord Seneca’s
companion, Challenger, was found unconscious.” His tone was firm and he looked steadfastly at Roxtonus.
nodded and carefully scrutinized the military man’s troubled expression. “I found him.”
all rights you should be working the fields, Roxtonus.” He deduced, bluntly. “Lady Marga, for reasons of her own,
may trust you but I don’t know you well enough to hold such conviction. You're new and I can’t afford to be gullible.”
Cicero evaluated he and Verona’s silence. “Do you understand?”
“I think I do.” Roxtonus
said, “You’re going to keep an eye on me. I don’t blame you, really. But Lieutenant, try to understand something,”
Roxtonus spoke tightly, “I want to know what’s going on here as much as you. Our lady’s well being reflects
on *me* as her body guard. I don’t want her hurt either. Possibly even more than you do.”
eyes narrowed. Despite the slave’s condescension he had a good feeling about this man. More so than with Tribune or
any of the cretins, posing as soldiers, he brought with him. Intuition was a part of what made Cicero good at his job. He
would trust his instincts now.
“Has the other tiger been found?” Verona asked.
There was sudden tension in Cicero’s manner, “and with so many arriving guests we have much to worry about. I
have men searching the outside grounds and several patrolling the immediate area but Ambrosia Hill is huge and I’m certain
that animal is *very* hungry about now.” He looked directly at Verona, “It is my opinion that whoever unleashed
those beasts probably did not know how deadly they could be while on the prowl. He or she was not aware of how many lives
would be endangered.” He added, “Could be the villain was a sheltered someone, willing to do anything to get his
or her way.” The lieutenant turned about abruptly and said: “Watch yourselves.”
Verona stared at
the man’s retreating form and spoke fretfully to Roxtonus, “Why do I get the impression he thinks *I* let the
Roxtonus empathized with her dread, for both she and Malones were still suspect despite Challenger's
misfortune. He took the girl’s hands in his own, “The Lieutenant’s grasping at straws, Verona. It’s
all he really has. Don’t worry about it. You may be on his catalog of suspects but, right now, you’re still below
“Is that supposed to make me feel good?’ She smiled, as a sister might to her favorite big brother,
and squeezed his fingers.
Her chef held a spoon aloft for her to taste from.
“What is this
dish?” Marga asked, sniffing.
“Minutal marinum.” Chef stated, proudly.
She tasted and nodded,
“Very good.” Then Marga suggested: “Add just a touch more coriander. Also, on the Fabaciae Virides et Baianfie
*please* steep it in very little oil. Last time we had them they were swimming.” Seeing the pout on her chef’s
face Marga added, “However, the Aliter Dulcia is perfect. It’s brilliant as a matter of fact. Just enough honey
to make it a flawless dessert.”
Chef puffed proudly once again, pleased to have finally made a good impression
on his mistress.
“The entertainers have arrived, Lady Marga!” Lydia called, looking out of the large oval
window on the far side of the kitchen.
Somewhat unnerved, Marga glanced over at her maid. Lydia, simple and trusting
but willing to do all she could for her owner, had been instructed to keep a watchful eye on the paths to the villa. Felix
should have arrived from his errand over an hour ago and Marga was worried. He promised to be here before their visitors arrived;
he was to also watch over the cooks, entertainers and guests – allowing his lady a proper regal entrance and to mingle
with her company. Yet, so far Marga’s friend and “right arm” was nowhere to be seen. Annoyed, she wondered
if he had problems delivering the document she had entrusted to him.
“Do you think any of them saw Felix on the
trail?” Lydia wondered aloud. She looked again to the on-coming caravan. “Behind them I see two fine carriages,
Mistress.” The girl squealed, excited. “Lord Syrus and Lady Lycoris have just arrived and Virgil is leading their
carriage to the stable.”
Quickly wiping her fingers on a dish towel passed to her by Chef, Marga walked away
from the ovens and stood beside Lydia. Unfortunately, from the sound of their strumming instruments, the traveling entertainers
were approaching from the east trail, on the opposite path Felix would have taken. Anxious and looking hard at the prominent
carriage Marga saw no sign of Felix with Lord Syrus either. She groaned inaudibly, “Lydia, find Penelope and a few of
the other ladies. I’ll need them to greet whoever arrives in the next half hour. Tell them to take the entertainers
to the out-building near the west side of the big fountain. Once there they can prepare and we’ll give them further
instructions. Escort our guests inside the front entrance to the dining room ...”
“Do you think the entertainers
will do a play? I do so love when actors perform a play!” Lydia yelped enthusiastically.
“We shall see.
“Yes, milady.” The girl curtseyed and made her exit.
Preoccupied, Marga was about
to move away from the window when she spotted Roxtonus and Verona speaking in the courtyard. They were holding hands and appeared
to be talking seriously, possibly even intimately. If Marga had seen the couple together like this two days previously she
would have been very pleased. However, after last evening, having felt Roxtonus passion, his incredible touch and affection,
feeling the former gladiator’s strong body against her own, Marga felt a violent but brief pull of jealousy and betrayal.
Obviously last night had been an aberration. Roxtonus saw it for what it was. Like all men, he was able to move on
without a backward glance. ‘You kicked him out of bed.’ Marga’s conscience reminded, ‘Why shouldn’t
he try to find happiness with another woman, especially the woman *you* chose for him?’ She had no one to blame but
herself. Nonetheless, Marga could not quash the tightness in her chest. Had it meant more to her than him? Had Roxtonus really
put it behind him already? Could he so easily have forgotten those magnificent kisses and the way they held each other close?
‘So much need from the both of us.’ Marga thought and cursed herself for allowing her much counted on control
to falter, even if it had been only for a few moments of exquisite pleasure in the arms of a warm and caring man. He was the
hero who had saved her life. ‘NO!’ she clamped down, ‘He is a slave, your body guard, and his life is in
Marga had felt and continued to feel jumbled and fevered sensations. Thoughts, both melancholy
and tolerant, assailed her as she watched the couple in the courtyard. Why did it bother her that he appeared well able to
get over her rejection of him? Last night the flame that flickered between them had erupted into a towering inferno but then
it ebbed when reality kicked in. As much as she wanted him Marga could not let it happen. He would learn too much and ask
question she could not – *no* - would not answer.
Marga shook herself. This was silly. Roxtonus and Verona, she
maintained, would make a lovely couple. Malones would eventually find another pretty blond and get over his heartbreak. He
was a young man. It would be easy for him to move on. “Just as I have.” she whispered.
With a deep but
silent sigh Marga pulled guilty eyes away from the couple and backed away from the window. She had someone to see before greeting
their guests in the banquet hall.
He gazed for a few minutes at the mural depicting tastefully painted
flowers, fruit trees and a long crawling vine which served as a boarder. He then placed a curious palm on the firm cool wall.
With purpose, he pressed gently, liking the texture. He then looked upward at the ceiling. It vaulted and arched in a creative
fashion which was both esthetically pleasing and ultimately practical for an area of the country which was always warm, even
on the coolest day of the year.
Challenger turned about, his smart maroon robe
swaying with the motion, and bowed ever so slightly. Lady Marga’s appearance had caught him by surprise and, watching
the stylish young woman lean into the guest bedroom’s door, chuckling with good humor, he suspected that’s exactly
what she was counting on. “Just admiring the architecture.” he said, walking over to meet with his hostess. “Your
home is awe inspiring, milady.”
“My husband designed it.”
“There are flowers and plants
all about the abode, as in this mural.” He said, nodding to the art work behind him. “I value that *and* the airy
feel surrounding us. It’s almost like living outside but having the comfort and security of an inviting shelter.”
you, Challenger. Arturus fancied himself a botanist. He loved flowers, plants and nature. His home reflects that.”
home.” Challenger corrected.
“Yes,” Marga cleared her throat. “*My* home. Sometimes I forget
I’m in charge.” Marga smiled sheepishly and nodded, saying ‘touché.’ with her manner. She walked further
into the room, “So Lord Challenger, how are you feeling after your ordeal last night?”
just ‘Challenger’.” he amended with a smile, “I am a free man but not quite aristocracy.” At
her nod he continued: “I could ask you the same question, milady. It seems we both had a close call.” Challenger
looked to the floor then up into Marga’s eyes, which had grown serious. “You do know that last night was *not*
an accident. Someone set those tigers free.”
“Lord Seneca thinks the guard on duty was careless.”
Challenger was firm, “I found evidence that proves *you* were targeted Lady Marga.”
evidence?” Marga abruptly appeared insulted at not being informed.
“It was a piece of cloth. Perhaps a
handkerchief from your collection.”
“How could you know…?” Marga stepped back when Challenger
closed in a bit and sniffed. “Challenger?’
“Your perfume. The cloth was saturated with it.”
you tell this to Captain Trejan or Lieutenant Cicero?”
“I did and Cicero agrees that there is more happening
here than an accident. However, when I was found unconscious this morning the evidence had mysteriously disappeared. Lady
Marga,” Challenger tone was anxious, “I fear for you. Not only is that other tiger free but someone here obviously
cannot be trusted.”
“I’ll be all right.” Marga considered and, without realizing it, began
to pace in front of the mural, “No one would dare harm me or anyone else while the banquet is underway. Too many witnesses.
My and Tribune's soldiers are looking for the second tiger. We should be safe from that beast.”
is *who* would want to see you dead?”
Marga stopped pacing and looked at the pensive Challenger. She could not
help but laugh at his straightforwardness. “If you’re trying to put me at ease, Challenger, it’s not working.”
the situation, Challenger was amused and laughed quietly. “Forgive me, milady.” He apologized, “Sometimes
I speak before thinking. I’m sure you’re right. You’ll be safe but, with your permission, I would like to
continue investigating while you are otherwise detained.”
“Of course. If you find anything be sure to …”
tell Lieutenant Cicero or Tribune?”
“No.” Marga said quickly then hesitated, “I want you to
go directly to my slave, Roxtonus.”
“Roxtonus?” Challenger questioned. “He is the man who wrestled
the tiger last night and found me this morning. He’s very capable. I can see why you would want him informed.”
waited for her house guest to say more, to perhaps make an off handed comment about Tribune’s unhappiness at being excluded,
but was grateful when the wise man chose to keep his thoughts to himself. It made her wonder why Challenger traveled with
Marcus Seneca. The learned man was obviously a genuine gentleman of ethics and great intelligence, unlike Marga’s suitor
who was mostly surface eloquence. “It time to go to the party.” Marga walked over to him and linked her arm with
his, “I think Arturus would have liked you, Challenger. In some ways you are very much like he was.”
am flattered, madam. Thank you.”
“I have a question though.” She said as they walked from the room,
“Do you know anything about fruit trees and irrigation? I’m having a spot of trouble …”
did a slight double take as they walked onward.
Roxtonus stood to the back of the large dining area, arms
crossed over his chest as he watched the celebration taking place around him. The musicians had tuned up and were now playing
a jaunty Greek melody. The guests, ten couples of the finest pedigree, sat and lay on plump pillows as they indulged in mouth
watering foods that Roxtonus vaguely remembered from his own days, long ago now, of leisure and pleasure, before his world
collapsed around him.
Tribune, draped in a chic rust colored robe, had made his entrance ten minutes ago to the claps
and calls of well wishers who encircled him. Captain Trejan followed at his master’s rear and although he did not take
a seat beside Seneca, choosing to stand in the background like Roxtonus, it was evident to Lady Marga’s body guard that
the Captain felt he belonged.
Roxtonus watched as both men looked about the room. He knew who they were looking for
and was selfishly pleased that Marga did not walk in with her betrothed. She was obviously going to make a grand entrance
of her own. It was her right and, temporarily forgetting his annoyance with the woman, Roxtonus felt she deserved it.
bruised but healthy, appeared slightly uneasy in the face of the scrumptious dishes placed in front of him. He had donned
a simple white toga accented with a dark blue vest. Occasionally his eyes would roam the room, perhaps checking to see if
Verona had entered, but he mostly focused on his plate and appeared to be brooding.
Challenger suddenly entered the
room from the grand entrance and bowed to the Ladies and Lords before him. He mimed for the musicians to stop playing. Then,
clearing his throat, he announced: “Friends and acquaintances, may I present the widow to Lord Arturus Summerles, the
mistress of Ambrosia Hill and our honored hostess, Lady Marga!”
As with Tribune before her there was applause
but also a few gasps. Roxtonus had a preview when he glanced at Lady Marga in the kitchen but here, out in the open with the
sunlight streaming in from an overhead skylight, she was superb. The woman’s beauty, coupled with a gentle smile of
appreciation, was as intoxicating as the wine in the goblets on the low tables before her guests. Slowly, the music started
up again as Marga took her place beside Lord Seneca, her guest of honor.
Roxtonus watched as small talk returned amid
couples, even between Tribune and Marga, but he could not truly hear anything over the music, not that he was overly interested.
Roxtonus job was to stand and watch over the assembly, to make sure Lady Marga remained well. She had made his position very
clear. Regardless of the feelings he may have for his mistress, she could never be his. It was going to be terribly difficult
when the announcement was made of Marga and Seneca’s marriage but Roxtonus had prepared himself. He would not show an
outward display of misery of any kind.
Startled, Roxtonus hadn’t
realized he was staring at her until Challenger’s voiced his opinion. Roxtonus did not reply.
Clearing his throat,
Challenger said, “I never really got a chance to thank you for this morning, Roxtonus.”
“I just happened
to be the first person who saw you.”
“No, you were the second. The first person was the man or woman who
Roxtonus pulled his gaze off of Marga and glanced at the man standing beside him, “You still
have no idea …” he started then was distracted, spotting Lieutenant Cicero as he entered from a side door. He
spotted Roxtonus and waved him over, appearing disturbed. Curious, Roxtonus did as requested. Challenger followed.
with me.” Cicero said, his voice low and confidential. He walked with both men outside.
Lady Marga saw the men
exit and, from their expressions, knew something was wrong. It would have been asking too much to have the gathering go without
a hitch. She desperately wished Felix would show up. She could send him out on a fact finding mission and he would ... Then,
her back stiffening, Lady Marga suddenly felt ill. "Felix." she whispered.
Making a quick excuse, Marga stood and walked
from the banquet hall.