guess the song...
I should have told Aurelia ‘no’.
But how do you refuse the second most powerful woman in the country? She didn’t pull rank as the imperatrix’s senior councillor or as head of the Twelve Families. She just looked steadily over her gold-rimmed spectacles and waited.
I was a senior captain in the Pretorian Guard Special Forces, for Mars’ sake, not some messenger clerk. But I owed her so much. When I was a kid she’d tried desperately to protect me from that bastard Caius. And after the Great Rebellion, she’d been my patron, saving me when I’d been viciously attacked because of my name. She’d even paid some of my debts, but she was no soft touch. I smiled at the time when I’d been eighteen and she’d ripped me to shreds for getting involved with a heartless tart, one of the Vara family. She’d been right, of course. I owed her my secondment shortly afterwards to train in the UK where I’d met a compassionate woman who demanded nothing.
And then Silvia… Not the imperatrix, the ruler of Roma Nova, but the woman behind that, torn between grief for the loss of her adored husband to cancer and the purpose of her life – as she saw it – her duty to her country.
But that had been over for a few months now. We would always be friends, more if I were honest. We’d known each other all our lives, but when Aurelia and my uncle Quintus suggested me as her official companion who would give her children, heirs, that had been a shock. That first evening in the palace when she’d smiled at me warmly, I’d seen the anxiety in her eyes. Whatever our shared trauma during the Great Rebellion, whatever our previous friendship, nothing was comparable to the need I saw in her eyes. I knew then that I would always protect and cherish her.
But I didn’t love her. Perhaps deep friendship and good sex, a shared sense of humour and of duty and the same outlook on many things was what love was supposed to be. I’d given her two children and she was pregnant with the third, but she hadn’t invited me to stay with her when our agreement had expired. I’d defaulted from companion to mere honoured guest. As the children’s father, I would always have access to them, but I was no longer part of the imperial household.
Hurt? A little, in my pride. And sad, but my heart hadn’t felt ripped out. It was all bollocks what the crooners sang about love. When I got back from this jaunt I’d settle down to some hard training, find myself a companionable woman and get on with my life.
I rubbed the aeroplane window as we decelerated, then glanced at my watch. Fifteen minutes to landing. My cousin, Sextilius Gavro, was still dozing in the next seat, his technical notes scattered on the flip down tray. I gathered them up and secured the tray in the clip on the back of the seat in front.
The traffic from Jan Rodrigues airport into central New York alternated between manic and crawling. Gods, what a way to organise one of the biggest cities in the Eastern United States.
‘You here from England on vacation?’ the cab driver asked.
‘Just to see the sights.’ I replied and shook my head at Sextilius who had leaned forward to correct the driver. Sextilius had a meeting with an advertising agency about launching his newest invention here in the EUS. I was tagging along as his interpreter, but I didn’t see the need to tell the world.
First, though, I had to find Aurelia’s granddaughter, Karen Brown, and deliver her message. After that and Sextilius’s meeting, I’d be free to enjoy myself for a few days.
In the hotel room, I unpacked my el-pad and finalised my search. Sextilius sat opposite me and shuffled his notes, breaking the silence with the odd ‘humph’. Before leaving Roma Nova I’d traced the granddaughter to New York, but didn’t know where she worked or lived. By correlating her age, twenty-four, with her education and time of leaving her cousins’ farm in Nebraska, I was down to the last three Karen Browns. One worked in Macy’s, one for the New York metro and the third—
‘Remind me of the name of that agency you’re seeing tomorrow, Sextilius.’
‘Bornes & Black. It’s on Connaught Avenue, in the —’
‘Yes, yes. But how did you come across them?’
‘They just came up as specialising in tech on the list from the Trade Department at home.’
‘Why? Aren’t they okay?’
‘You didn’t get a push from anybody else to use them?’
His puzzled frown radiated innocence.
‘Okay,’ I replied. ‘Let’s just see what they’re like when we get there tomorrow.’
At Bornes & Black a tall, elegant woman introduced herself as Hayden Black’s secretary; he was the founding partner, Sextilius said. She escorted us upstairs to a glass-walled conference room where a man and a young woman sat at a blindingly shiny long table. A middle-aged man in an old-fashioned sports jacket and casual trousers, Black looked like somebody from an earlier age but his eyes were sharp enough under a genial smile as the two of them rose to greet us.
As any Roma Novan would, Sextilius walked past the man and held his thin hand out to the young woman. He forgot that here men were usually senior. She looked surprised and glanced at Black who smiled at her and nodded for her to go ahead.
‘Salve, Sextilius Gavro,’ she said in a near perfect Latin accent. Her voice was slightly hesitant, but clear.
‘My interpreter, Conradus Tellus,’ Sextilius replied in a sing-song tone.
I finished returning Black’s smile and turned to greet the woman.
I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life.
She stared back at me with eyes as bright blue as Aurelia’s. Her red-blonde hair framed her face which was on a level with mine. She wasn’t smiling like most Americans did. She stood completely still.
‘My colleague. Karen Brown, who will be leading on your account,’ I vaguely heard Black’s voice in the background.
I studied her face; she seemed so familiar, yet so distant. I wanted to stay on this spot. I smiled like an idiot. She held my stare and didn’t blink. A pink tinge grew on her skin and rose into her face, but she didn’t break her gaze.
I extended my hand, I wanted to touch her, yet I couldn’t. She was too strong. Through those eyes I saw steel inside her, whether or not she knew it herself. Gods, she was Aurelia, but in a subtly different way.
A cough in the background. Karen Brown eventually looked down at my outstretched hand and hesitated. She blinked and stretched out her hand to meet mine.
‘Salve Conradus Tellus,’ she said, and captured my heart.
© Alison Morton
Alison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.
A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing.
Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband.
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site: http://alison-morton.com
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/alison_morton @alison_morton
Alison’s Amazon page: http://Author.to/AlisonMortonAmazon
the Roma Nova thrillers – INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO. CARINA, a novella, is available now. Audiobooks are available for the first four of the series.
Roma Nova Extra: A collection of short stories from the fourth century to beyond the present for all Alison Morton fans or new readers ...
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The Full List of Authors
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