She could hear the loud reverberation of a drum, the resonating
lilt of a trim flute then the hum of human clapping when a song, a short but sweet lyric, had ended. By all that was right,
she should be inside, standing respectfully behind her lady or the guest of honor, listening to the music or partaking in
a meal. But, here and now, Verona had too much on her mind.
Slowly, she paced in the grassy carpet in front of the
larger of two stables, thoughtful and a little melancholy. Earlier, she had dressed in a simple mauve toga with a lavender
train and brushed her hair back, clasping it into a thick blond braid. She then visited Malones, who was up and dressed in
his own dinner attire.
“You are one dazzling lady.” He remarked when she entered and smiled at him.
is that all?” she asked, chuckling. “You’re feeling better?”
“Much. Never better.”
They then came together in a gentle kiss and hug, speaking softly. Malones mentioned, once again, that he wanted to
take her away. He would marry Verona and they would be so incredibly happy together once they left Ambrosia Hill.
had answered him unexpectedly with just one word, “No.”
“What do you mean?” he had asked, parting
from her and taking a pace backward.
“You are going to find this hard to believe, Neddus, but I have never been
happier then when I was brought here by Lady Marga two years ago. It’s beautiful and …”
“Yes, I know. I have always *been* a slave!”
From there the conversation spiraled
downward. How could she explain to him that, despite her servitude with Lady Marga, she was still valued? Certainly, her life
was a trial, sometimes she lived at the callous whim of her mistresses but Marga always seemed to have her slaves’ best
interests at heart. “Neddus, you don’t really *need* me. Not like you think you do but Lady Marga …”
is not just making you marry a man you don’t love ….”
“…. but could easily learn to love.
Roxtonus is a very good man ….”
“Oh.” Malones stopped for a moment, a misguided realization
beginning to dawn. ”Are you falling in love with him, Verona?”
“No!" Verona rolled her eyes, "Neddus,
you’re missing the point!”
“Tell me!” he demanded, frustrated.
“I just told you
that I like my life here on Ambrosia Hill. But you ignored what I said … Don’t you see how it will be if I were
with you? You will be my master just as Lady Marga is my mistress and whatever *you* think is what you think *I* should think
…I will have no say in our marriage.”
“Of course you will!” he argued.
me, what will be the difference? Whether I am here, married to Roxtonus, and ruled by Lady Marga or away from Ambrosia Hill,
with you and running away – mastered by you!”
She then swiveled quickly away from him and walked out of
Verona, now pacing and breathing deeply, clenched her hands into fists to prevent them from shaking. She
debated whether she should march bravely into the banquet hall or remain where she was. Verona *did* love Malones, more than
any man she had ever met, but also felt inclined to defend Lady Marga. However, in doing it she was pushing Malones away.
What she said was true, she would be trading one master for another, but Verona also knew - in her heart and soul and despite
all the obstacles in their way - that a life with her true love would be paradise. Maybe she had made a mistake, pushing him,
demanding Malones pay attention to her desires when he had nearly as much to lose and gain as she.
Lieutenant Cicero approached her from the path leading up to the stables. “Shouldn’t you be inside?” he
asked, indicating the banquet hall.
“Have you come to interrogate me once again?” she asked.
a way.” He replied but unpredictably allowed a small smile. “Just wondering if you’ve seen anything suspicious.”
“Activity. People not acting like they should. That sort of thing.”
Have you?” she asked and looked up, meeting his eyes with her own.
Surprised, Cicero nearly chuckled. He then
looked away and asked, “What do you think of Captain Trejan and his soldiers?”
“The only soldier
I really know is Malones but he’s here as a guest. The others seem typical. They leer at the female slaves. That’s
“You haven’t heard them say anything?”
“No, but they’ve only been
here since yesterday. Besides, Lady Marga doesn’t like her female slaves to consort with soldiers. She thinks it cheapens
“I saw Lydia with Trejan’s First Officer this morning, before she reported to the kitchen
to help Lady Marga. They seemed very cozy.”
Verona looked taken aback. “He must have been kind to her and
she snuck away.”
“Do the ladies do that often?”
“No, Lieutenant.” Verona’s
tone was tired, “But Lydia is young and not too terribly quick. She’s a *special* girl, nearly childlike, and
takes to compliments easily.”
“She can be effortlessly manipulated?”
Verona narrowed her eyes,
“What are you searching for Lieutenant?”
A whinny interrupted their
conversation, as well as the pounding rhythm of large hooves against mud and stone.
Verona’s eyes widened, “Is
The reigns flew loose in front of him as he galloped up the trail to the stables. Cicero “Whoa”’d
the large stallion then, calming him, brought the animal over to Verona. “He’s been running hard. Looks like he’s
been out for sometime. Possibly since last night.”
How did he get out?” she wondered.
know but,” He remembered something Lady Marga told him, “I think we need to inform Roxtonus.” Cicero handed
the reigns to the girl, “Stay with him until we return.”
Verona nodded and gently rubbed Titus nose.
was nearly noontime when Roxtonus and Challenger were brought to the back of the villa’s largest stable by Lieutenant
Verona, although appearing ill at ease by the unknown, cooed gentle words into the animal’s ear.
approached. “What are you doing here?” he asked, wondering why Verona wasn’t at the banquet. He had noticed
a somewhat morose Malones eating by himself and thought Verona might be tending to Marga before her appearance at the feast.
However, before Verona could answer Roxtonus realized which horse it was she was comforting. “Titus?” and he touched
the horse’s perspiring neck.
“He’s been galloping,” said Cicero, standing stiff-backed and
tall, appearing formidable in his Roman armor. “A long distance from what I can see here.”
out last night?” Challenger asked, puzzled. “Who was riding him?”
“I was not informed.”
Lieutenant Cicero sounded, coming across as perturbed. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Challenger. He admired men with aptitude
but also distrusted them. One just never knew what they were thinking in those clever heads of theirs.
aloud said, “Usually Felix and Lady Marga are connected at the hip. He hasn’t been around all morning. *I* would
guess he took Titus for a ride.”
“Possible.” Cicero considered, “That animal doesn’t
let just anyone ride him. My security patrols can attest to that.”
Roxtonus, despite the situation, felt a somewhat
pleasurable rush of satisfaction. Lady Marga had told him the same thing yesterday when they had rode Titus to the lemon grove.
The stallion had allowed *him* to mount and ride him as if they had been best friends forever. Titus had a good feeling about
him and showed his approval for Lady Marga’s newest slave the only way he could. If only the lady herself was as easy
“Perhaps Felix and Lady Marga argued.” Challenger suggested, “I heard she has a ferocious
‘Heard that from Tribune no doubt,’ Roxtonus sardonically thought but said, “You think
he used Titus in an escape attempt?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Lady Marga rounded a corner and,
having heard what was being exchanged, approached the small gathering. Her elegant silver gown billowed behind her in the
calm breeze about them.
Cicero, Verona and Challenger bowed slightly at her presence. Still angered over her rejection
of him last night, Roxtonus could not bring himself to show his mistress an overly blatant form of esteem. He would probably
pay for it later but for now he continued to pet Titus long neck and did not look at her.
“I had Felix run an
errand for me very early this morning.” Marga said, apparently unconcerned with Roxtonus breech of manners. “He
was to be back before now.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, milady?” Cicero asked, standing erect
and now angered despite who it was he was addressing.
She glanced quickly at Roxtonus and Verona then back at her lieutenant.
“It was a confidential matter. But I *am* worried.” She looked up at the heavily puffing Titus and winced, “Very
“Milady!” Captain Trejan’s rough voice called from behind, having followed Marga
at his Lord’s urging, “Tribune requests your return to the banquet hall. He is troubled by your sudden departure.”
noted the peeved look Marga gave to the Captain, “Tell him I will return shortly. Meanwhile, he and the others should
enjoy the entertainment offered and eat as much as they like.”
Trejan bowed, acknowledging her comments, but
remained in place.
“Milady, I have soldiers out, scouring Ambrosia Hill for the tiger.” Lieutenant Cicero
assured, directing her attention back to him. “I am certain if they find your man-servant they’ll bring him straight
Verona looked up at Cicero then let her gaze drift to Captain Trejan. She was disturbed to realize Trejan
– still standing behind Lady Marga - had been staring at her, possibly for quite sometime. He was smiling oddly, like
a lascivious fool, as she had described the soldiers to Cicero earlier. Verona might have sneered at the Captain if it would
not have deterred them from their current concerns. “I’ll take Titus into the stable and have him toweled down.”
“I’ll go with you.” Trejan started and took a couple steps.
cut in firmly, her mind seeming to be focused elsewhere. She did not look at the soldier as she spoke and did not catch the
unmistakable but very brief moment of fury his face registered. “Captain Trejan, I would like you to go back to the
banquet hall and keep an eye on things. I don’t want our guests to find out that something might be amiss. As it is,
we still have a tiger on the loose.” Looking up now, she noted but did not care that he appeared disturbed. Trejan was
either worried about what Tribune would say or did not like being ordered about by anyone other than Seneca, particularly
if the other person was a woman.
“Yes, milady.” Once again he glanced quickly at Verona then bowed and
turned about, marching back to the villa.
“Challenger, I would appreciate if you could go with Verona and make
certain Titus is taken care of. We may need him again.” Marga said.
Understanding, Challenger nodded and took
the stallion’s reigns. He and Verona, with Titus, made their exit into the stable.
With a deep sigh, Marga then
raised her eyes and looked directly into Roxtonus’, “I would like for you and Lieutenant Cicero to go find Felix.
I would go myself if I didn’t have guests.”
Roxtonus was dismayed to see a deep alarm and, if he wasn’t
mistaken, guilt in her usually aloof or well controlled expression.
Marga turned from Roxtonus to talk with her Lieutenant.
“I want you to take personal charge of this, Cicero. Felix has been here for years and is very important to me.”
milady. I’ll get the horses.”
Roxtonus watched Cicero move away. He then looked out into a wooded area,
tinge slightly with a mid afternoon fog, where his mistress now stared. “He’s right. We’ll find Felix and
bring him back to you, m’lady.” Roxtonus’ voice took on comfort because he could not help feeling sympathy
for her. Marga cared for Verona – possibly at times even thought of her as a little sister - but Felix, despite his
status, was Marga’s closest friend. At this moment, despite the air of strength she displayed in front of the others,
Marga – to Roxtonus - just seemed so lost and exposed. “Lady Marga …” Roxtonus began, feeling he needed
to say something more.
Marga, in an instant of incomprehensible action, turned quickly and placed her slender hands
on Roxtonus shoulders. Leaning her body towards his, Marga gently laid her mouth directly on his. His lips were soft and slightly
salty, confirming the pleasant memory she had of their encounter last evening. Marga quickly pulled back, looking for the
briefest moment into his stunned expression. She whispered: “Help me.” The plea was low, only for Roxtonus’
ears. Then Marga, perhaps having revealed far more than she would ever want him to see, was away and racing back to the villa
in a billow of diaphanous silver.
He stared after the lithe, retreating form. ‘Help me.’ she had said in
a voice that made him feel he could and would do anything for her but *also* made Roxtonus burn with maddening desire.
the former gladiator women had always been an agreeable diversion. He did not love any he had ever been with but enjoyed their
company and the powerful release they offered after a particularly hard day in the arena. But *never* had a woman made Roxtonus
feel so conflicted. “Damn you.” He whispered, quelling an urge to refuse Lady Marga. She had not just trampled
on his pride last night but made him explore deeper emotions. Roxtonus had held them inside for so long he did not think he
could ever feel them again.
Yet, as Roxtonus saw Lieutenant Cicero approach with the horses he knew, in more ways
than one, he was still Lady Marga’s slave.
She had won this round between them.
*I am a fool.*
There was no reason to kiss him. Roxtonus would have done as requested merely because his owner commanded him to do a job.
Yet, Marga felt an urge and acted on impulse. Was it because of what she saw in the courtyard, Roxtonus and Verona getting
along so famously? Did she truly feel the need to show him that Verona, although lovely and considerate, could not show passion
the way his mistress could? Verona was a chaste little flower whereas the man’s mistress was an experienced woman …
you.” Marga whispered and gulped slightly as she walked. The man was infuriating, standing there with so much confidence.
He hadn’t so much as bowed to her when she first arrived. He was arrogant and strong … and deserved to be rewarded.
could hear the music floating out from the banquet hall. She stopped and looked inside. Through the windows the mistress of
Ambrosia Hill could see Marcus Seneca lounging, talking and laughing with a few companions. Trejan stood inconspicuously in
background. She had asked him to keep an eye on things and he was, at least, doing that. Some brave couples were dancing together.
It was a new dance from Hispania where the man not only touched the woman but held her in his arms.
image of she and Roxtonus, his strong arms wrapped comfortably around her, swaying to the music, came instantly to mind. Marga
shook her head, attempting to dispel the vision. What in the world was the matter with her? Why was this male, a slave she
had bought only three days ago, causing her to behave like a fool? “Soon it won’t matter.” Marga whispered
to herself, somewhat unhappily.
Once Felix was found all would be right with the world once again. She was certain
he would have good news for her. That's what was taking so long. He had waited for an answer after all. Marga would sign the
papers right away and they would leave that night. But she had to be certain. Nothing could go wrong. Marga couldn’t
begin what was to come next until she was sure Verona was safe. The women of her house had been hard at work, taking their
self-defense lessons all week. That was important too.
Slowly, Lady Marga slid a hand down the smooth curve of her
hip, to an upper leg. She could feel the strap. Tied to her thigh was a slim leather scabbard. Inside was a dagger. She looked
at the unaware Marcus Seneca once again. He was clapping and praising the musicians as they ended another song. “Enjoy
yourself while you can.” Marga whispered, hating his smugness.
She might be damned forever but, so help her,
Marga would look forward to plunging the blade deeply into his chest.