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470 pages, Paperback
First published April 6, 2010
“Yes. I didn’t think I’d find you so interesting, not after three months. But there’s something in you I seem to like, and on a long-term basis I prefer to own rather than rent. You’ll return to Rome with me in a week.
"You know I’ve built a new palace? Nearly completed. I’ll use it for public functions . . . and for the Empress’s quarters. You’ll move into her old rooms next to mine in the Domus Augustana—that’s my private palace. You know, I had a statue of Minerva carved with your face for my private temple? Perhaps you really are a goddess. It would be foolish to let my very own goddess slip away from me, wouldn’t it? And I’ve never been a fool."
Domitian traced my neck, his eyes turning blank and absent. “I like to play games, you know. With my chamberlains, my senators, my guards. It’s easy to make them afraid of me. Even my wife’s afraid under that marble face of hers. But you aren’t."
“The affair with my son when you were a bride of twenty-one. The affairs with, at my last count, twenty-two senators, nine praetors, three judges, and five provincial governors.”
“It’s—it’s not true, I never—”
“At least they were men of your own class,” [he] rode over me. “What about the affairs with the charioteers, and the masseurs at the public bathhouses, and the legionnaires—especially the two brothers from Gaul who took you at the same time, front and back? Governors and senators are one thing, Lepida, but trash from the gutters..."
“Why?” Lepida drew back her silk skirts and kicked Arius in his injured ankle; he drew a breath through his teeth. “Why her? Why not me?”
He regarded her briefly. “Because you look like a ferret.”
“So.” The Emperor settled back into the black cushions. “What shall I do with you?”
“You could let me walk out,” Vix suggested.
“No . . . I don’t think so.”
“Worth a try.”
“All black, huh?” Vix looked around the black triclinium—chinking his wrist chains together, Paulinus noticed, to hide the fact his hands were trembling. “Scary.”
“I haven’t decided yet what to do with you, Vercingetorix,” the Emperor mused. “I could throw you to the lions in the arena. Or perhaps I’ll have you gelded. How would you like to sing as prettily as your mother?”
“A man of the sword, then. Like your father, perhaps. Who was he?”
“Dunno.” Clink clink clink.
“Liar,” Domitian said pleasantly. “We’ll have to work on that.”
“Oh boy. Can’t wait.” Clink clink clink.
“Stop what?” Clink clink clink.
“That sound. It annoys me. A god’s ears are acute.”
“Well, we’ve all got problems.” Clink clink clink. “You’re going to kill me,” said Vix to the Emperor. “Aren’t you.”
“We’ll see, nothing. I’ve heard the stories. Gods squish mortals like ants.”
“You believe me a god, then?”
“Well, I don’t know.” Another smile. “You sure bleed like a mortal, Caesar.”
“I’m not allowed to do anything anymore.”
“Except wait on the Emperor?”
“. . . Don’t.”
“Why can’t I touch you?”
“He’d smell you on me.”
“He’s not a god.”
“Arius, he’ll never release me. Once he puts his mark on something, it’s his forever.”
Silence. He reached for her.
“Don’t touch me.”
“What’s wrong? You’re shaking.”
“No, I—I—just don’t try to kiss me. Please.”
“I need to know you’re real. You look like a dream, and I’m old and ugly.”
“Never that. Never that.”
“He’s a hard man, my uncle; he’s hard and he’s cruel, and he’s cruelest of all to his women.”