Rhodes, AD 57
In the glare of the island morning sun, the sea blazed diamond-bright and hard as crystal, erratic flashes spattering light across Daria’s swift departure from the house of her angry employer.
She carried all she owned in one oversized leather pouch, slung over her shoulder. The pouch was not heavy. A few worn tunics and robes, her precious copy of Thucydides. She clutched it to her side and put her other hand to the gold comb pinning the dark waves of her hair, her one remaining luxury.
The bitter and familiar taste of regret chased her from the whitewashed hillside estate, down into the squalid harbor district. Why had she not kept silent?
Along the docks hungry gulls shrieked over fishy finds and work-worn sailors traded shrill insults. The restless slap of the sea against the hulls of boats kept time with the anxious rhythm of her steps against the cracked gray stones of the quay.
She had run once, haunted and guilty to a fresh start in Rhodes. Could she do it again? Find a way to take care of herself, to survive?
The voice at her back was young and demanding, the tenor of a girl accustomed to a world arranged to her liking. And yet still precious, still malleable.
“Mistress! Where are you going?”
Daria slowed, eyes closed against the pain, and inhaled. She turned on the sun-warmed dock with a heaviness that pulled at her limbs like a retreating tide.
Corinna’s breath came quick with exertion and the white linen of her morning robe clung to her body. The sweet girl must have run all the way.
“To the School of Adelphos, Corinna. I will seek a position there.”
Corinna closed the distance between them and caught Daria’s hand in her own. Her wide eyes and full lips bespoke innocence. “But you cannot! Surely, Father did not mean what he said—”
Daria squeezed the girl’s eager fingers. “It is time. Besides”—she tipped Corinna’s chin back—“you have learned your lessons so well, perhaps you no longer need the services of a tutor.”
Corinna pulled away, dark eyes flashing and voice raised. “You do not believe that, mistress. It is you who says there is always more to learn.”
They drew the attention of several young dockworkers hauling cargo from ship to shore. Daria stared them down until they turned away, then circled the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close, and put her lips to Corinna’s ear. “Yes, you must never stop learning, dear girl. But it must be someone else who teaches you—”
“But why? What did you say to anger Father so greatly?”
Only what she thought was right. What must be said. A few strong phrases meant to rescue Corinna from a future under the thumb of a husband who would surely abuse her.
Daria smiled, fighting the sadness welling in her chest, and continued her trudge along the dock toward the school. “I am afraid discretion is one of the things I have not yet learned, Corinna. Your father is a proud man. He will not brook a mere servant giving him direction in the running of his household.”
Corinna stopped abruptly at the water’s edge, her pretty face turned to a scowl. “You are no mere servant! You are the most learned tutor I have ever had!”
Daria laughed and looked over the sea as she walked, at the skiffs and sails tied to iron cleats along the stone, easy transportation to the massive barges that floated in the blue harbor, awaiting trade. Papyrus and wool from Egypt, green jade and aromatic spices from far eastern shores, nuts and fruits and oils from Arabia. Her eyes strayed beyond the ships, followed northward along the rocky Anatolian coast to cities unknown, riddles to be unraveled, secrets and knowledge to be unlocked. More to learn, always. And somewhere perhaps, the key to redeeming the past.
They approached and skirted the strange symbol of the isle of Rhodes, the toppled Helios that once stood so proud and aloof along the harbor and now lay humbled, its bronze shell speckled to an aged green, reflecting the impenetrable turquoise sky. The massive statue had lain at the quay for gulls to peck and children to climb for nearly three hundred years since the quake brought it down. Daria found it disturbing.
“May I still visit you at the school, Mistress Daria?”
She smiled. “One challenge at a time. First I must convince Adelphos that he should hire me.”
Corinna’s tiny sandals scurried to keep pace. “Why would he not?”
“It is not easy to be an educated woman in a man’s world of philosophy and rhetoric. There are few men who appreciate such a woman.”
“How could anyone not appreciate someone as good, as brave, as you?”
The child gave her too much credit. She was neither good, nor brave. She would not be here in Rhodes if she were. Though she was trying. The gods knew, she had been trying.
Corinna lifted her chin with a frown in the direction of the school. “I shall simply explain to Adelphos how very valuable you are.”
And how outspoken? Interfering? But perhaps the girl could help in some way.
“Will you demonstrate some of what I have taught you, Corinna?”
The girl’s eyes lit up. “Just wait, mistress. I shall amaze and delight that crusty old Adelphos.”
Daria studied the impetuous girl and bit her lip. But it was a chance she must take.
The School of Adelphos lay at the end of the docks, its modest door deceptive. Daria paused outside, her hand skimming the rough wood, and inhaled determination in the sharp tang of salt and fish on the breeze. Who would believe that such distinguished men as the poet Apollonius and Attalus the astronomer had studied and written and debated behind this door? Sea trade had kept Rhodes prosperous for centuries, but in the two hundred years under Roman control, the Greek island had grown only more beautiful, a stronghold of learning, of arts and sciences and philosophy.
Inside its most famous school, she blinked twice and waited for her sun-blind eyes to adjust.
“Daria!” Adelphos emerged from the shadows of the antechamber with a cool smile and tilt of his head. Tall and broad-shouldered, he was several years her senior, with the confident ease of an athlete, a man aware of his own attractiveness.
She returned the smile and straightened her back. “Adelphos. Looking well, I am pleased to see.”
He ran a gaze down the length of her, taking in her thin white tunic and the pale blue mantle that was the best of her lot. “As are you.”
“I have come to make you an offer.”
At this, his eyebrows and the corner of his mouth lifted in amusement and he gave a glance to Corinna, still at the door. “Shouldn’t we send your young charge home first?”
She ignored the innuendo. “My employ as Corinna’s tutor will soon come to an end, and I desire to find a place here, in your school. As a teacher.” She swallowed against the nervous clutch of her throat.
Again the lifted eyebrows, but Adelphos said nothing, only strolled into the lofty main hall of the school, a cavernous marble room already scattered with scholars and philosophers, hushed with the echoes of great minds.
She gritted her teeth against the condescension and beckoned Corinna to follow, with a warning glance to keep the girl quiet, but the child’s sudden intake of breath at the fluted columns and curvilinear architraves snapped unwanted attention in their direction, the frowns of men annoyed by disruptive women.
Adelphos disappeared into the alcove that housed the school’s precious stock of scrolls—scrolls Daria had often perused at her leisure and his generosity.
Daria spoke to his back. “Do you doubt my abilities—”
“What I doubt, my lady, is a rich man’s willingness to pay a woman to teach his sons.”
Daria waved a hand. “Bah! What difference does it make? I can do a man’s work just as well. And if they learn, they learn!” But a cold fear knotted in her belly.
Adelphos traced his fingertips over the countless nooks of scrolls, as if he could find the one he sought simply by touching its ragged edge. “And you, Daria? Do you want to live a man’s life as well as do a man’s work? What woman does not long for love and family and hearth?”
Her throat tightened at his words, too close to the secrets of her heart. Yes, she longed for those comforts. For a love that would accept her abilities, complement rather than suppress. But for now, for now she had no one and she must assure her own welfare.
She coughed to clear the dryness of her throat and stepped beside him, examined the great works of philosophy and literature, their tan Egyptian papyri wrapped in brown twine, sealed in waxy red.
Adelphos reached past her to a nook above her head, and his muscled arm brushed her shoulder.
The touch was intentional, clearly. Manipulative. Even so, his nearness left her breathless and her usual sharp-tongued wit failed. When she spoke, it was a harsh whisper, too raw with emotion, though the words emerged falsely casual. “And why should I not have both?”
At this, Adelphos huffed, a derisive little laugh, and turned to lean his back against the shelves and unroll the scroll he had retrieved.
“A woman of ambition. Does such a breed truly exist?” His gaze darted to hers. “But what am I saying? You have already wedded a husband, have you not?”
Daria pulled a scroll from its recess and pretended to study it.
“You are interested in the work of Pythagoras? That one is newly arrived from Samos.”
Daria shrugged. “I find his work repetitive. What new has he added to Euclid’s previous efforts?”
“Indeed.” Adelphos pulled the scroll from her hands and replaced it in its nook. “But you have not answered my question.”
“I am a widow, yes.”
“A widow with no sons. No dowry.” He glanced at Corinna, clutching the doorway. “And no employment. Is there anything more desperate?”
Daria lifted her chin and met his gaze. “It seems you are in an enviable position, then, Adelphos. You have found a skilled teacher, available for a bargain.”
Adelphos circled to Corinna, an appreciative gaze lingering on her youth and beauty. “And this is your prize specimen? The pupil of whom I have heard such wonders?”
The girl straightened and faced Adelphos with a confidence borne of knowledge. “Shall I demonstrate the superior skill Mistress Daria has given me with languages?”
Daria silently cheered and blessed the girl. “Corinna has been working hard to master the tongues of Rome’s far-flung empire.”
Adelphos’s brow creased and he opened his lips as if to speak, then sealed them and nodded once. No doubt he wanted to ask what use there might be for a girl who could speak anything but common Greek. As Daria herself was such a girl, the implicit question struck a nerve. She turned a shoulder to Adelphos and nodded encouragement to Corinna. “Let us hear Herodotus in the Classical first, then.”
The girl grinned, then gushed a passage of Herodotus in the proud language of her Greek forebears, the language of literature and poetry, before Alexander had rampaged the world and equalized them all with his common koine.
“And now in Latin, Corinna.”
The girl repeated the passage, this time in the tongue of the Romans, the new conquerors.
Adelphos tilted his head to study the girl, then spoke to her in Latin. “Anyone can memorize a famous passage in a foreign tongue. Few can converse in it.”
Corinna’s eyelashes fluttered and she glanced at her hands, twisted at her waist. When she answered, it was not in Latin, but in Persian. “Fewer still can converse in multiple languages at once, my lord.”
Adelphos chuckled, then glanced at Daria. “She does you proud, lady.”
A glow of pride, almost motherly, warmed Daria’s chest. “Indeed.”
Corinna reached out and gripped Adelphos’s arm, bare beneath his gleaming white tunic. “Oh, it is all Mistress Daria’s fine teaching, I assure you, my lord. I wish to be an independent woman such as she someday. There is nothing she cannot do.”
“Corinna.” Daria smiled at the girl but gave a tiny shake of her head.
Corinna withdrew her hand and lowered her eyes once more. “I have told my father this, but he does not understand—”
“Her father has been most pleased with her progress.” Daria tried to draw Adelphos’s attention. “He saw a superior mind there from an early age and was eager to see it developed.”
He waved a hand in the air. “I have seen enough. You may go.”
Corinna reached toward Daria, but Adelphos stepped between, his expression on Daria unreadable. “Not you, my lady. You shall stay.”
A flutter of excitement chased down Daria’s spine.
Corinna embraced her and clung tight, too tight. “Good-bye then, Mistress Daria.” The words where muffled against Daria’s neck, tear-filled and final, with all the drama to which young girls are prone.
Daria patted the girl’s back and whispered, “You go on then, Corinna. We shall see each other everywhere. In the theater, in the market. You have my promise.”
Corinna flitted from the hall, and her departure felt like an ending when something new had not yet begun. A place-between-places that was most uncomfortable.
Daria turned to Adelphos, who leaned his shoulder against the shelf of scrolls beside her, his body close enough that she could smell the cook spices of his morning meal.
“If we strike this bargain, you and I, we must understand each other.” His voice was hard and clear, his eyes calculating. “You will give yourself to art and science and letters, and in this you will become a curiosity, and therefore an asset to this school. But you will not give yourself to a man. You shall not marry.”
It was a quick twist in her chest—like the wringing of a tiny bird’s neck—not particularly violent or painful. But irrevocable.
“You shall have me undivided, Adelphos. I will make you wealthier, I promise.”
He shrugged and lifted his body away from the shelf. “Not that I expect your celibacy to be a problem. I have never met a man who would want a wife as clever as you.”
She dropped her gaze to the marble floor and held her tongue. For once.
He jabbed a thumb toward the back of the hall. “You may take the small room here as your own, if you wish.” He led her to the tiny space that held only a sleeping mat and indicated a small, unlit lamp in a wall niche.
If she had sought for a place to belong, she had been disappointed. Adelphos’s grudging tolerance had all the icy detachment of a slave purchase. But it was enough that she would survive. It was enough.
At the entry, he turned, one hand on the door frame. “The school is rented in the off-hours to a private group. Take care not to disturb them.”
“What kind of group?”
“I believe you cannot help but question everything, can you, woman? I am still unconvinced that you are not more trouble than you are worth.”
With that he left, and it was his mysterious patrons who disturbed her, late that evening when she raised her head from where she sat against the wall of the alcove, poring over her precious scroll of Thucydides. She had lit a lamp against the fading day, but the hall beyond lay in half-darkness, filled with whispers.
She let the scroll furl upon itself, then slipped the loop of twine over and held it lightly in her hand. She crept to the door, peered around the frame to survey those who paid Adelphos for a private meeting place.
A tight circle of men in the center of the vast hall allowed only glimpses of a light burning between pressed bodies. The secretive slant of their shoulders and the raspy murmurs slid a chill across her skin.
They all whispered at once, the same words, over and over in a language even she did not recognize. Some sort of chant, a religious ritual. Priests?
She craned her neck to see into their midst. What did priests do when they gathered in private? Why did they not serve the gods in the temple, where rituals belonged? Would not strange deviations from the rules invite the gods’ wrath?
But they wore ordinary tunics and outer robes, the dress of prosperous businessmen, not the elaborate robes of priests. Even so, their hands reached into the circle and they swayed along with their chants, lost in religious ecstasy.
A mewling cry, like that of a young lamb, squeaked from within their circle and froze Daria’s blood. A sacrifice? Here in the School of Adelphos, in the center of the marble floor? Were there not temples and altars for such rites?
It came again, that pitiful cry, and for an instant their bodies parted and Daria glimpsed the whiteness, not of a lamb, but of a tunic covering pale skin.
She straightened, stepped into the doorway, reached a hand toward the group.
She must get closer.
Her sense of danger roared a warning, but she slipped along the edge of the hall, kept to the shadows, circled to a gap where a small table had been set with dark-colored amphorae, strange amulets, and yellowed scrolls.
Through the breach she saw their captive and at the sight sucked in a ragged gasp, too loud, too sudden.
The girl was no older than Corinna. Young, and pretty once, but now with stringy hair that hung about her eyes and scratches gouged into the pale flesh of her arms and face. Where was her family? Her mother? Two men held her arms, heedless of her injuries, and a third forced her lips open to receive the contents of a tiny amphora.
But at Daria’s gasp the group stilled as one, then turned a cold gaze along the marble floor to where she stood. She fought to breathe against the constriction in her chest, a tightness borne half of ordinary fear and half of something far darker.
She found her voice and raised it above them. “What are you doing? Free this girl at once!”
One of the men, tall and gangly with mottled skin like a snake and bulbous, watery eyes, sneered at her. “Has Adelphos taken a wife at last? Or simply a pretty washing woman?”
She tucked her valued scroll into the roomy sleeve of her robe and crossed her arms. “I am a teacher here in the School of Adelphos, and whatever ill you plan to inflict upon this child will not be tolerated.”
The girl’s wide eyes were focused on her, as though she clung with her soul to a rope that had been tossed when Daria appeared.
The snake-skinned man pointed a bony finger. “A teacher, you say? Then leave us to our learning.”
“You are sorcerers, then?” The word felt thick and lifeless on her lips, a leaden reminder of the past, of the evil she had seen once. Barely survived. “And this girl?”
Another spoke, unshaven, with missing teeth. “A fortune-teller, my lady. She is possessed of spirits who see beyond. She plies her trade at our behest.”
“And you pocket the earnings, I assume?”
He shrugged one heavy shoulder. “She has little use for money.”
Daria moved toward them, outrage hardening in her chest. She pointed to the table of scrolls and amulets, to the amphora still between the fingers of one. “And this? What do you force on her?”
“Only a little something to . . . aid . . . in her talents. A bit of pharmakeia, nothing more.”
Daria pushed through into the center of the circle, laid a hand on the girl’s sweaty brow. In spite of her captors, the girl managed to grip Daria’s wrist, her eyes still locked on Daria’s face.
“No.” Daria swept a hard glance around the circle. “This is unacceptable. I demand that you release this girl.”
At her back, the snake-man hissed, his breath hot and wet on her face. “Take care, my lady. You meddle with power of which you are ignorant. And you shall not long be a friend to Adelphos if you continue.”
“A widow with no sons. No dowry. And no employment.”
Adelphos’s ugly words snagged against her thoughts, caught in a dark web. She shook her head and pulled away. Resisted the snare, let the heat build in her chest and give her courage.
The girl, so like Corinna, still held Daria’s gaze, though her eyes held secrets, too—secrets of the underworld, perhaps, that whispered into her madness. Poor child.
“If the girl has such talents as you claim, she should have no need of your potions and charms.” Daria swept a hand across the air, taking in the littered table. “You are all charlatans who take money for fortunes when you have nothing more than a drugged and desperate child.” She circled an arm around the girl’s waist and tugged her toward the entryway of the hall, toward the door beyond, her eyes on the circled group. “I shall take this girl back to her parents, where she belongs.”
She backed against one of them, a solid wall of resistance. He grabbed her arms above the elbows. She lost her grip on the girl, dropped the Thucydides scroll, and tried to wrench her arms from his grasp.
His voice at her ear was like the distant rumble of a storm. “What shall we do with her, Cronos?”
The snake-man sidled across the floor to face her.
A shiver of fear chased along her veins and she averted her eyes.
She twisted again, loosed herself from her captor, but now Cronos was reaching for her, his bony fingers raking through her hair.
She spun away, several steps backward, until her heel caught the leg of their low table of horrors.
Cronos’s eyes flicked to the table, alarm lighting his features.
A surge of power filled Daria, and she hooked an intentional foot around the table leg. “Let the girl go.”
Instead, Cronos lunged.
In one smooth motion, Daria swept her foot and raised an arm to protect herself. The table cracked against the tiles, amulets scattered and amphorae smashed, leaking foul-smelling liquid across the scrolls like acid eating flesh.
Cronos screamed, his face a mask of fury at the destruction, and threw himself at Daria, grabbing at her arms, her shoulders, her hair.
She fought back her own scream, revulsion streaming in waves across her limbs, and clawed at him. Dragged desperate fingernails across his cheek and felt the pull of skin and trickle of blood beneath her nails.
He screamed again. Clutched a hand across his damaged cheek.
Daria pushed through the clustered group of sorcerers, fighting over each other to save what they could of their incantation scrolls and treacherous potions.
She snatched up her Thucydides and grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come!”
In the entry, the clamor had brought Adelphos. Daria breathed out her relief and pulled the girl toward him.
“Adelphos! These men are—”
“What have you done, woman?” He took in the ruined chaos, then turned his eyes on her. The rancor, the hatred, the absolute fury that shone from his face shut her mouth.
Behind her, Cronos shrieked, “Kill her, Adelphos! Kill her and be done with it!”
End of this excerpt.
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Thanks for taking an interest in a behind-the-scenes look at City on Fire!
Originally published in 2011 as Pompeii: City on Fire, this repackaged version has a new title, new cover and some new editing. For those of you curious about the reason for the re-release, not long after its first publication I began working with a new publisher, and that house wanted to see what they could do to increase sales. Going with a different publisher means things have to change, but I love the new title and cover!
In some ways, we owe a debt of gratitude to the mountain called Vesuvius, and to those who perished under its flow. So much of what we know of life at the height of the Roman Empire has come to us through the frozen-in-time city unearthed in the region of Campania, near modern Naples. The discovery of these lost cities fueled the Neoclassicism of the 18th century, and had a direct influence on much of American architecture. One need only stroll through Washington, D.C., to get a feel for ancient Rome. Although, a trip to D.C. wouldn’t quite satisfy me, so I headed to Pompeii (twice, actually!) to walk the actual streets and dive into research.
The eruption buried Pompeii under more than twelve feet of ash and pumice, and preserved so much of the city, exactly as it was on that day, that archaeologists digging 1700 years later discovered entire loaves of bread still sitting on counters, fresh from the ovens!
The plaster casts familiar to most of us from history class were created when pockets were discovered in the hardened ash – vacuums created by the decayed bodies of the volcano’s victims. The plaster was poured into these cavities, then excavated, giving us a vivid depiction of real Romans in the death throes of the eruption.
I used some of these figures in Pompeii, especially as I imagined the final moments of the characters of Europa and Seneca, Taurus, Emeritus and Drusus. You can see more pictures of the plaster casts found in Pompeii at this link.
Much of the details given to us in Pompeii – its graffiti, its buildings, its artwork – formed the backdrop of this novel, though for the most part the characters are from my imagination.
The name and position of Gnaeus Nigidius Maius came to me from graffiti found in Pompeii, notices filled with electoral propaganda and announcements of the games to be sponsored by the candidate. Other than this bit of information about Maius, the remainder of his character, actions and dialogue are of my own making.
I also pulled a few of the names of the gladiators from notices and graffiti found in Pompeii listing their accomplishments.
The characters of Cato and Ariella are completely fictional, as are most of the other players in the story.
While the characters of the early church in Pompeii are of my making, I have tried to describe the function and reputation of these house churches throughout Rome with accuracy. I am indebted to Gerald Sittser, whose book, Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries, aided my understanding of the first century church.
The arena in Pompeii is considered to be the oldest Roman amphitheater yet unearthed, built probably around 80 BC, and already nearly two hundred years old at the time of this story. The Flavian Amphitheater in Rome, later known as the Colosseum, was in its final stages at the time Pompeii was destroyed.
In outlining the events of Pompeii’s final day, I have attempted to stay as close to what the archaeological evidence tells us as possible. Historians and scientists have been able to ascertain the rate at which ash fell from the first eruption to the final pyroclastic surge which buried the city, and from this I built the ending of the book and the end of the city.
In the years since 79 AD, Vesuvius has erupted many times, though not with the devastation of that earlier eruption. Perched now over the populous city of Naples, it is considered dormant but not extinct, and is an ever-present threat to Naples and southern Italy.
The most recent eruption of Vesuvius in 1944 was caught on film because of the presence of American troops in Italy during World War II. You might enjoy watching the related newscast of the eruption of Vesuvius here. (This is a fun video to watch, just to see an old news broadcast!)
I had a wonderful time imagining the lives and adventures of the characters within City on Fire. If there are specific incidents or characters about which you are wondering, please let me know. I’m happy to answer questions about my research.
If you have read City on Fire, and are interested in discussion questions that can be used personally or with a book club, you’ll find a list of questions here.
Walking along the city streets of Pompeii, you can almost hear the echoes of an ancient world, a bustling seaside town at the height of its glory. Frozen in time by the massive amounts of ash and rock debris from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, this carefully unearthed Roman town gives us a glimpse into Roman life, as it once was.
It’s all here – restaurants, bakeries and theaters. Brothels, taverns and arenas. A marketplace for shopping and local government buildings where the rich and powerful wielded influence. Pompeii graffiti, scrawled on walls and painted along the streets, touts politicians and merchants, a society of people much like our own.
The Pompeii volcano, called Vesuvius, was simply a beautiful mountain to the people of this idyllic city, who had no idea that death loomed above them. As the ash fell, those unfortunate enough to be caught in the city and those who chose to remain became victims. The Pompeii bodies remained entombed inside the hardening ash and rock, to be discovered centuries later.
A list of Pompeii facts is too sterile to be our only look at this magnificent city. Explore the pictures, videos, and information below!
On Location with Tracy in Pompeii
A life of grief and hardship has hardened Ariella into a woman capable of handling herself and anything that comes at her, including the swords of her fellow gladiators. But when her hard-won independent spirit clashes with the evil forces of the city, it will take more than expertise in the arena to win the day.
Cato only wants to be left alone to grow his grapes and run his shop. Why does everyone insist on his entering the local election? The newest gladiator catches his attention, but it’s his sister’s plight in the clutches of the city’s corrupt leader that forces him out of the vineyard and into the fight.
Cato’s mother knows what it means to look after her children, but they don’t make it easy. Cato’s resistance to cleaning up the city corruption finally gives way, but only when Portia is in danger. She’d planned to live out her widowed retirement in luxury, but this seaside resort has a seemy underbelly, and her family’s its newest target.
Her brother Cato’s always been the strong one. But ever since he came to Pompeii, trouble has picked up. And where there’s trouble, Cato won’t long resist jumping in to save the day. Can Portia survive being Maius’s target until Cato is forced to help?
Action has never been Lucius’s forte. Now his wife is in serious danger, his brother-in-law is obsessed with a gladiator, and the greedy politician who controls the city has made their entire family a target. Wasn’t Pompeii supposed to be a vacation town?
The city was firmly in his grasp until the meddling family of the Catonii showed up. Gambling, brothels, the arena games – Maius had a piece of all of it. But no young Roman whelp is going to take him down. Cato has no idea what’s in store for him and his family.
The rabbi-turned-slave Jeremiah has spent too many years looking after the gladiators. Perhaps its time for this worn-out Jew to leave the fight to younger men. But when the newest gladiator’s secret becomes shockingly clear, it seems that Jeremiah has one more assignment, and it’s a dangerous one.
Europa and Seneca
They’ve traveled to Pompeii to raise their adopted daughter and join a secret sect who still meets behind closed doors. But their secret is about to be made public, and as the danger from the volcano boils above, an even more frightening enemy is at their door.
For the gladiators of Drusus’s troupe in Pompeii, freedom is a dream and death is a reality. When one young gladiator starts to steal the attention that is their only hope of survival, it won’t be long before she falls under their wrath.
August 9, 70 AD
Ariella shoved through the clogged street, defying the mob of frantic citizens. Men, women, and children crowded the alleys, senseless in their panic to flee the city. They carried all they could, packed into pouches slung across their chests and clutched in sweaty hands. Soldiers ran with them, as though they had all joined a macabre stadium footrace, with participants who clubbed and slashed at each other to get ahead. Beside her, one of the district’s tax collectors tripped and fumbled a latched wooden box. It cracked against the cobbled street and spilled its meager hoard of gold. The tax collector was dead before he hit the ground, and the Roman soldier pulled his sword from the man’s gut only to scrabble for the coins.
Ariella turned her head from the gore, but felt little pity for the tax man, cheated of life by the Romans for whom he had betrayed his people. Still, concern flickered in her chest at the sudden violence in the street.
Something has happened.
The city had been under siege for months. Three days ago her mother announced that the sacrifices in the Temple had ceased. But today, today was something new. Perhaps three days of sins not atoned for had brought the wrath of the Holy One down on them all.
Unlike those who ran the streets with her, Ariella’s destination was neither Temple nor countryside. She returned to her home—if the dim tenement could be called such—from another useless excursion to secure food.
At sixteen and as eldest child, it fell on her to search the famished city for a scrap of dried beef to feed her brother, perhaps a thimbleful of milk for the baby, crumbs for her father whose eyes had gone glassy and whose skin was now the color of the clay pots he once turned on the wheel.
But there was no food to be found. Titus, the emperor’s son, had arrived in the spring with his army of eighty thousand and his siege wall served well its double function—the people were trapped and they were starving.
Not even such a wall could prevent news from seeping through its cracks, however. From Caesarea, word escaped of twenty thousand Jews slaughtered in a day. Fifty thousand killed in Alexandria. Ten thousand met the sword in Gamla. Such numbers were incomprehensible.
Here in Jerusalem, the bodies thrown outside the city were too numerous to count, piled high in rotting mounds, as though the city itself were defiled and would forever be unclean.
Yet we are not all dead. Ariella’s hands curled into tense fists as she rounded the last corner. She would cling to life as long as she had strength, and like her untiring mother, she would hold tight to that elusive thread for each member of her family.
She pushed against the rough wood of the door and slipped out of the rush of the street. The home’s tomb-like interior had the peculiar smell of starvation. In the corner, her baby sister whimpered as if in response to Ariella’s entrance. Micah met her at the door, his sunken eyes fixed on her and his lips slightly open, as though anticipating the food she might have brought. Or perhaps he simply lacked the strength to close his jaw. She shook her head and Micah turned away, hiding his disappointment as all boys of eleven do when they are threatened by tears.
Her father did not speak from his mat on the floor. Ariella scooped the listless baby Hannah into her arms and gave her a finger to suck. Small consolation.
“Where is Mother?” She scanned the room, then looked to Micah. A low groan from her father set her heart pounding. “Where is she, Micah? Where has Mother gone?”
Micah sniffed and glanced at the door. “To the Temple. She has gone to the Temple.”
Ariella growled and pushed Hannah into her brother’s arms. “She is going to get herself killed, and then where will we be?”
She bent to her father’s side. The man had been strong once. Ariella could barely remember. She touched the cool skin of his arm. “I will bring her back, Father. I promise.” Her father’s eyes sought her own, searching for reassurance. The hunger seemed to have stolen his voice. How long until it took his mind?
She turned on Micah, grabbed his shoulder. “Do not let anyone inside. The streets–” She looked to the door. “The streets are full of madness.”
He nodded, still cradling Hannah.
She kissed the baby. “Take care of them, Micah.” And then she left to retrieve her mother, whose political fervor often outpaced her common sense.
The mid-summer sun had dropped in the sky, an orange disc hazy and indistinct behind rising smoke. The city burns. She smelled it, sensed it, felt it somehow on her skin as she joined the flow toward the temple – a heat of destruction that threatened to consume them all.
Her family enjoyed the privilege of living in the shadow of the Temple Mount. A privilege that today only put them closer to folly. She twisted through the crazed mob, darted around wagons and pushcarts laden with family treasures, swatted at those who shoved against her. Already, only halfway there, her heart struck against her chest and her breathing shallowed, the weakness of slow starvation.
She reached the steps to the south of the Temple platform and was swept upward with the masses. Why were so many running to the Temple? Why had her mother?
And then she heard it. A sound that was part shrieking anger, part mournful lament, a screaming funeral dirge for the city and its people. She reached the top of the steps, pushed through the Huldah Gate, dashed under the colonnade into the Court of the Gentiles, and drew up short. The crowd pressed against her back, flowed around her and surged onward, but Ariella could not move.
The Temple is on fire.
The next moments blurred. She felt herself running, running toward the Temple as if she alone could avert this monstrous evil. Joining others who must have shared her delusion. She saw Roman legionaries club women and children, voices raised in a war cry. The yells of zealot rebels and the shrieks of those impaled by swords returned like an echo. The dead began to accumulate. Soldiers climbed heaps of bodies to chase those who fled. She tasted ashes and blood in the air, breathed the stench of burning flesh, and still some pushed forward.
She fought the smoke and blood, climbed the steps and entered the Court of Women. All around her, peaceful citizens were butchered where they stood. Ahead, a current of blood ran down the curved steps before the brass Nicanor Gate. The bodies of those who had been murdered at the top slipped to the bottom.
Ariella swayed on her feet at the carnage. That her mother was one of these dead she had no doubt. Elana’s outspoken defiance of Rome had earned her a reputation among her people, one that matched the meaning of her given name, torch.
She could go no farther. The entire Temple structure flamed now, from the Court of Israel to the Holy of Holies, its beauty and riches and sanctity defiled, raped by the Romans who even now risked their own flesh to steal its treasures.
A groan at her feet drew her attention, and she saw as if from a great distance that indeed her mother lay there, a bloody slash against her chest and a vicious purpling around her eyes. She lifted a hand, claw-like, to Ariella, who bent to kneel beside her and clasp her fingers.
Ariella had no words. What use to say good-bye, when they would all be in the same place soon?
Strange, she was very cold. With the flames so near and so fierce, still her fingers felt numb as she wrapped them around her mother’s hand.
Elana whispered only “Never forget…” before she was gone, and Ariella nodded because it was the expected thing to do. She studied her mother’s face, the eyes open and unseeing, and felt nothing. Was that right? Should she feel something?
After awhile she thought perhaps she should go home. She tried to stand, slipped in some blood that had pooled on the marble beneath her, and tried again.
The noise seemed far off now, though she could see the faces of citizens, mouths gaping as though they screamed in agony, and soldiers, feral lips drawn back over their teeth. But the sounds had somehow receded.
She weaved through the upright who still lived, stepped over the prone who had already passed, and drifted back to her house. Behind her, the Temple Mount was enveloped in flames, boiling over from its base, though there seemed to be even more blood than flames.
The stupor that had fallen over her at the Temple seemed to slough away as she traveled the streets. From open doorways she heard an occasional wail, but largely it was quiet. Too quiet. As though a river of violence had washed down the street while she’d been gone and swept away all that lived.
Her own street was not so peaceful. From end to end it burned.
She searched the crowd for her father, Micah, the baby. Grabbed hollow-eyed friends and wailing neighbors. One old woman shook her head and pointed a withered hand to the end of the burning street. “Only Micah.” She coughed. “Only he escaped.”
Micah. She called his name, but the word choked in her throat. Where would he have fled?
They had whispered together, one unseasonably warm night a few months ago on their roof, of running away from Jerusalem. Child’s talk, but now… Would he have tried to leave the city, to make it two hours south to family in Bethlehem?
Minutes later, she stumbled toward the Lower City. The Dung Gate would lead her south, to the valley of Hinnom and onward to Bethlehem. If she could escape.
Too many joined her. They would never be allowed to pass. She climbed crumbling steps to the rim of the city wall. Would she see a thread of refugees weaving out of Jerusalem, beyond the gates?
There was a procession of Jews, yes. But not on foot, fleeing to safety. On crosses, writhing in death throes. An endless line of them, crucified in absurd positions for the Romans’ entertainment, until they had run out of crosses, no doubt. Ariella gripped the wall. She would have retched had there been anything in her stomach.
She considered throwing herself from the wall. Was it high enough to guarantee her death? She would not want to die slowly on the ground, listening to the crucified.
The decision was made for her. From behind, a Roman soldier grabbed both her arms, laughing. She waited for the air in her face, for the spin of a freefall in her belly, that feeling she loved when her father rode the donkey cart too fast over the crest of a hill.
Instead, the soldier spun her to face him, shoved her to the stone floor, and fumbled at her tunic.
No, she was not going to die like that.
She exploded into a flailing of arms and legs, kicks and screams. She used her fingernails, used her teeth, used her knees.
From behind her head another soldier called. “That one’s a fighter, eh, Marcus?”
The soldier on top of her grunted.
“Better save her for the general. He wants the strong ones to sell off, you know.”
Ariella realized in that moment that since the siege began months ago, she had believed she would meet her death in the City of God. But as Jerusalem died without her, something far worse loomed in her future.
Life in the slave market of Rome.
Nine years later
Night fell too soon, bringing its dark celebrations to the house of Valerius.
Ariella lingered at the fishpond in the center of the dusky atrium, slipping stale crusts to the hungry scorpion fish one tiny piece at a time. The brown and white striped creature snapped at its prey with precision, the venomous spines along its back bristling.
The fish food ran out. There was no delaying the inevitable.
Let the debauchery begin.
Nine years a slave in this household, nine annual tributes to Dionysius. The Greek god, embraced by the Romans and renamed Bacchus, apparently demanded every sort of drunken vice performed in his honor. And Valerius would not disappoint the god.
Indeed, Valerius flaunted his association with the mystery sect, though its practice was frowned upon by the government and disdained by most citizens.
Ariella inhaled, trying to draw strength from the deadly fish her master kept as a pet. For we are both kept as such, aren’t we? The scorpion fish’s body swayed like a piece of debris, its disguise needless in its solitary enclosure.
Within an hour Valerius’s guests poured into the town house, sloshed up most of the wine she’d placed on low tables in the triclinium, and progressed to partaking of the extract of opium poppies, tended in red-tinged fields beyond the city. The sweet, pungent smoke hung like a smothering wool toga above their heads.
A traveling guild of actors somersaulted into the room, their lewd songs and costumes an affront to decency and a delight to the guests. Ariella lowered her eyes, embarrassment still finding her even after all she had endured, and cleared the toppled cups and soiled plates. She passed Valerius, sprawled on a gold-cushioned couch, and he rubbed a hand over her calf. Her muscles twitched like the flank of a horse irritated by a fly.
Her master’s high-pitched laugh floated above the general noise of the intoxicated. Ariella winced. Valerius performed tonight for his honored guest, another politician from the south somewhere.
“Perhaps we shall make a man of you yet, Maius.” Valerius waved his slender fingers at the larger man. “I shall take you out into the city and declare to all that you are one of us.”
The politician, Maius, reddened. Ariella leaned over him to refill his cup. Clearly, he was here to humor Valerius but not align himself with the vile man.
When the actors had twirled their final dance and claimed applause, the herd of guests took their revelry to the streets. Valerius dragged Ariella through the door, always his special companion this night. Her breath caught in her throat. It was not the streets she feared. It was what would come after.
Mother, why could I not be strong like you?
The insanity built to a crescendo as they wound their torch-lit way toward the Via Appia, where the procession would climax. The Bacchanalians howled and pushed and tripped, their vacant eyes and laughing mouths like the painted frescoes of her nightmares. Hair disheveled, carrying blazing torches, they danced along the stones, uttered crazed predictions and contorted their bodies impossibly. Back in Jerusalem, her father would have said they had the demons in them. Here in Rome, Ariella rarely thought of such things.
It was enough to survive.
They passed a cluster of slaves, big men, most of them, herded into a circle amidst a few flaming torches. Strange time of day for a slave auction. Ariella met the eyes of a few, but their shared circumstance did not give them connection.
Snatches of speech reached her. A gladiator troupe. A lanista, the trainer for the troupe, called out numbers, making new purchases. A memory of home flashed, the day she had been sold to Valerius’s household manager. She had thought herself fortunate then, when so many others were sold off to entertain in the arena. Foolish child.
The unruly procession passed the men bound for death and Ariella’s gaze flitted through them. Did they feel the violent shortness of their lives press down on them? Before her stretched nothing but endless misery. Was their lot not preferable?
A muscled slave with the yellow hair of the west shifted and she glimpsed a face beyond him. Her blood turned to ice, then fire.
She yanked away from Valerius’s sweaty grip. Stood on her toes to peer into the men.
Valerius pulled away from the raucous group, wrapped a thin arm around her waist, and brought his too-red lips to her ear. “Not growing shy after all these years, are we?” His baby-sweet voice sickened her.
She leaned away. Caught another look at the boy.
Turn your head. Look this way!
Valerius tugged her toward the road, but her feet had grown roots. I must be sure.
But then he turned, the boy about to be a gladiator, and she saw that it could not be Micah. He was too young, older than she remembered her brother but not old enough to be him. Though the resemblance was so strong perhaps he was a distant cousin, she knew he was not her brother. In fact, the boy looked more like her than Micah. If she were to cut her hair, she could pass for his twin.
She let Valerius pull her back to the procession, but the moment had shaken her. Memories she had thought dead turned out to be only buried, and their resurrection was a knife-blade of pain.
She sleepwalked through the rest of the procession, until their drunken steps took them to the caves on the Via Appia, dark spots on the grassy mounds along the road where greater abuses could be carried out without reprisals.
Valerius and his guest, Maius, were arguing.
Ariella forced her attention to the men, leaving off thoughts of Micah and home. It did not pay to be ignorant of Valerius’s moods.
“And you would sully the position you’ve been given by your dissolution!” Maius’s upper lip beaded with sweat and he poked a finger into Valerius’s chest.
Valerius swiped at the meaty finger. “At least I am not a coward! Running home to pretend to be something I am not.”
“You think me a coward? Then you are a fool. I know how to hold on to power. Yours will wash away like so much spilled wine.”
Valerius cackled. “Power? Ah yes, you are a mighty man down there in your holiday town by the sea. I daresay you couldn’t put a sword to a thief if he threatened your family!”
Ariella took a step backward. Valerius misjudged Maius, she could see. The man’s eyes held a coldness that only came of cruelty.
Before Valerius could react, Maius had unsheathed a small dagger from his belt. He grabbed for a nearby slave, one of Valerius’s special boys, wrapped a meaty arm around his forehead, and in one quick move, sliced the slave’s neck. He let the boy fall. Valerius screeched.
“There.” Maius tossed the dagger at the smaller senator’s feet and glared. “I owe you for one slave. But perhaps now you will keep your pretty mouth shut!”
“What have you done?” Valerius bent to the boy and clutched at his bloody tunic. “Not Julius! Not this one!”
The moon had risen while they marched, and now it shone down on them all, most of the guests taken with their own lustful pursuits and senseless to the drama between the two men. Ariella traced the path of moonlight down to her feet, to the glint of iron in the dirt. Maius’s dagger.
She had not held a weapon for many years. Without thought she bent and retrieved it. Held it to her side, against the loose fabric of her robe.
She could not say when the idea first planted itself in her mind. Perhaps it had been back in the city when she had seen the boy who was not Micah. Perhaps it only sprang to life at this moment. Regardless, she knew what she would do.
She would not return to Valerius’s house. Not participate once more, behind closed doors, in the mystery rites that had stolen her soul. Her nine years of torture had come to an end.
No one called out, no one pursued. She simply slipped away, into the weedy fields along the Via Appia, back to the city, the dagger hidden under her robe. She unwrapped the fabric sash at her waist and wound it around her hair. A few quiet questions and she found the yard where the newly-purchased gladiators awaited their assignment. A little flirtation with the loutish guard at the gate, enough to convince him that she was one of the many Roman women obsessed with the fighters, and he let her in with a wicked grin.
She found the boy within moments. His eyes widened as though she were his first opponent. She pulled him to the shadows, to the catcalls of his fellow fighters.
The dagger was steady in her hand and sharp enough to slice through large hanks of hair. The boy watched, wide-eyed, as she disrobed in front of him, modesty ignored.
He was young enough to easily convince.
Within minutes she had donned his leathers and taken his place on the ground with the other fighters. The boy stumbled across the yard, awkward in his new robes and headscarf.
It was done.
Elana would be proud.
End of this excerpt.
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