Kate Quinn Mistress of Rome

ISBN 13: 9780425263624

Mistress of Rome

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9780425263624: Mistress of Rome

First-century Rome: a world of depravity, blood, and secrets. The ruthless and enigmatic Emperor Domitian watches over all—and fixes his gaze on one humble young woman....

Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia. Now she has infuriated her mistress by capturing the attention of Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator—and though his love brings Thea the first happiness of her life, their affair ends quickly when a jealous Lepida tears them apart.

Remaking herself as a singer for Rome’s aristocrats, Thea unwittingly attracts another admirer: the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But the passions of an all-powerful man come with a heavy price, and Thea finds herself fighting for both her soul and her sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress.  

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About the Author:

Kate Quinn attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. The daughter of a history major, she grew up with anecdotes about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, wrote her first story at age seven, and, after seeing Spartacus, resolved someday to write a book about a gladiator. That ambition turned into Mistress of Rome. She is also the author of Daughters of Rome and Empress of the Seven Hills. 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One
APRIL, A.D. 82

The atmosphere at the Mars Street gladiator school was contented,convivial, and masculine as the tired fighters troopedin through the gates. Twenty fighters had sallied out to join themain battle of the Cerealia games, and fourteen had come back alive.A good enough average to make the victors swagger as they filedthrough the narrow torch- lit hall, dumping their armor into thewaiting baskets.

“. . . hooked that Greek right through the stomach! Prettiestpiece of work I . . .”

“. . . see that bastard Lapicus get it in the back from that Gaul?Won’t be looking down his long nose at us anymore . . .”

“. . . hard luck on Theseus. Saw him trip in the sand . . .”

Arius tossed his plumed helmet into the waiting basket, ignoringthe slave who gave him cheery congratulations. The weapons hadalready been collected, of course— those got snatched the momentthe fighting was done.

“First fight?” A chatty Thracian tossed his own helmet into thebasket atop Arius’s. “Mine, too. Not bad, huh?”

Arius bent to unlace the greaves about his shins.

“Nice work you did on that African today. Had me one of thosescrawny Oriental Greeks; no trouble there. Hey, maybe next time I’llget Belleraphon and then I’ll really make my fortune.”

Arius unlaced the protective mail sleeve from his sword arm,shaking it off into the basket. The other fighters were already troopinginto the long hall where they were all fed, whooping as they filedalong the trestle tables and grabbed for the wine jugs.

“Quiet, aren’t you?” The Thracian jogged his elbow. “So whereyou from? I came over from Greece last year— ”

“Shut up,” said Arius in his flat grating Latin.

“What?”

Brushing past the Thracian into the hall, he ignored the trestletables and the platters of bread and meat. He leaned over and grabbedthe first wine jug he saw, then headed off down another small ill- lithallway. “Don’t mind him,” he heard another fighter growl to theThracian. “He’s a sour bastard.”

Arius’s room in the gladiator barracks was a tiny bare cell. Stonewalls, a chair, a straw pallet, a guttering tallow candle. He sank down onthe floor, setting his back against the wall and draining half the jug ina few methodical gulps. The cheap grapes left a sour taste in his mouth.No matter. Roman wine was quick, and all he wanted was quick.

“Knock knock!” a voice trilled at the door. “I hope you aren’tasleep yet, dear boy.”

“Piss off, Gallus.”

“Tut, tut. Is that any way to treat your lanista? Not to mentionyour friend?” Gallus swept in, vast and pink- fleshed in his immaculatetoga, gold gleaming on every finger, magnolia oil shining onevery curled hair, a little silk- decked slave boy at his side. Owner ofthe Mars Street gladiator school.

Arius spat out a toneless obscenity. Gallus laughed. “Now, now,none of that. I came to congratulate you. Such a splendid debut. Whenyou sent the head flying clean off that African . . . so dramatic! I wasa little surprised, of course. Such dedication, such savagery, from onewho swore not an hour before that he wouldn’t fight at all . . .”

Arius took another deep swallow of wine.

“Well, how nice it is to be right. The first time I saw you, I knewyou had potential. A little old for the arena, of course— how old areyou, anyway? Twenty- five, thirty? No youngster, but you’ve certainlygot something.” Gallus waved his silver pomander languidly.Arius looked at him.

“You’ll get another fight in the next games, of course. Somethinga little bigger and grander, if I can persuade Quintus Pollio. A solobout, perhaps. And this time”— a glass- sharp glance— “I won’t haveto worry that you’ll deliver, will I.”

Arius aligned the wine jug against the wall. “What’s a rudius?”The words surprised him, and he kept his eyes on the jug.“A rudius?” Gallus blinked. “Dear boy, wherever did you hearabout that?”

Arius shrugged. They had all been waiting in the dark underthe Colosseum before their bout, nervous and excited, fingering theirweapons. Here’s to a rudius for all of us, one of the others had muttered.

A man who had died five minutes later under a trident beforeArius could ask him what it meant.

“A rudius is a myth,” Gallus said airily. “A wooden sword givenfrom the Emperor to a gladiator, signaling his freedom. I supposeit’s happened once or twice for the stars of the arena, but that hardlyincludes you, does it? One bout, and not even a solo bout— you’vegot a long way to go before you can call yourself a success, much lessa star.”

Arius shrugged.

“Such a dear boy.” Gallus reached out and stroked Arius’s arm.His plump fingers pinched hard, and his black peppercorn eyeslocked onto Arius’s with bright curiosity.

Arius reached out, picked up the tallow candle beside him, andcalmly poured a stream of hot wax onto the soft manicured hand.Gallus snatched his burned fingers away. “We really will have todo something about your manners,” he sighed. “Good night, then.Dear boy.”

As soon as the door thudded shut, Arius picked up the wine jugand drank off every drop. Letting the jug fall, he dropped his headback against the stones. The room wasn’t spinning anymore. Notenough wine. He closed his eyes.

He hadn’t meant to fight. He’d meant what he’d told Gallus,standing in the dim passage underneath the arena, hearing the roarsof the crowd and the screams of the wounded men and the whimpersof the dying animals. But the sword had been placed in his hand, andhe’d gone out with the others in the brisk group battle that served towhet the crowd’s appetite for the solo bouts, and he’d seen the Africanhe’d been paired to fight . . . and the black demon had uncoiledfrom its self- devouring circles in his brain and roared joyously downthe straight and simple path of murder.

Then suddenly he had been standing blinking in the sunlightwith another man’s blood on his face and cheers pouring down on hishead like a swarm of bees. Just thinking about those cheers broughtan icy sweat. The arena. That hellish arena. It spoiled his luck everytime. Even slaughtering its guards had failed to get him killed.After that savage beating seven months ago, he had awakened inbed. Not a soft bed; Gallus didn’t waste luxuries on half- dead slaves.Dragging himself painfully into the light, he heard for the first timeGallus’s voice: high, modulated, reeking of the slums.

“Can you hear me, boy? Nod if you understand. Good. What’syour name?”

Hoarsely he croaked it out.

Gallus tittered. “Oh, that’s absurd. A Briton, aren’t you? You barbariansalways have impossible names. Well, it won’t do. We’ll callyou Arius. A bit like Aries, the god of war. Quite catchy, yes, we cando something with that.

“Now. I’ve bought you, and paid a pretty price, too, for a half- deadtroublemaker. Yes, I know exactly why you were sentenced to thearena. You were part of a chain gang making repairs on the Colosseum,until you strangled a guard with his own whip. Very foolish,dear boy. Whatever were you thinking?” Gallus snapped for his littleslave boy with the tray of sweetmeats. “Well, then”— eating busily—“you can tell me for starts how you ended up working a chain gangin the Colosseum.”

“Salt mines,” Arius forced out through swollen lips. “In Trinovantia.Then Gaul.”

“Dear me. And how long have you been working in thosesinkholes?”

Arius shrugged. Twelve years? He wasn’t sure.

“A long time, clearly. That explains the strength of the arms andchest.” A plump finger traced over Arius’s shoulders. “Hauling rocksof salt up and down mountains for years; oh yes, it builds fine men.”A last lingering stroke. “One doesn’t learn to use a sword in themines, however. Where did you learn that, eh?”

Arius turned his face toward the wall.

“Well, no matter. Time to listen. You’ll do your fighting for mefrom now on, when and where I say. I am a lanista. Know what thatis? No? I thought your Latin was a little rough. Everything about youis a little rough, isn’t it? A lanista is a trainer, dear boy, of gladiators.You’re going to be a gladiator. It’s a good life as they go— women,riches, fame. You’ll take the oath now, and begin training as soon asthose bones patch up. Repeat after me: ‘I undertake to be burnt by fire,to be bound in chains, to be beaten by rods, and to die by the sword.’ That’sthe gladiator’s oath, dear boy.”

Arius told him hoarsely what he could do with his oath, and collapsedback into blackness.

It had been days before he could get out of bed, weeks before hisbones were whole, and nearly five months before his training in thegladiators’ courtyard was complete. His fellow fighters were pettycriminals and bewildered slaves scummed off the bottom of the market:a cheap cut- rate bunch. Arius slid indifferently into the school’sroutine: just one more thug with Gallus’s crude crossed- swords tattooon his arm. Better than the mines.

Rudius. The word came back to him. Sounded like a snake, not awooden sword. He didn’t see how getting a wooden sword from theEmperor made you free, but the mist- shrouded mountains of homerose up before his eyes, impossibly fresh and green and lovely.A wooden sword. He used wooden swords every day when hetrained. He always broke them, hitting too hard. An omen? Hethought back to the white- robed Druids of his childhood, dimlyremembered, smelling of mistletoe and old bones, reading the godsin every leaf’s fall. They’d call it a bad omen, breaking a woodensword. But he’d never had many good omens in his life.

He shook off the thought of home. The Mars Street school wasn’tbad. No women and riches as Gallus had promised, but at least nomerciless sun, no chains eating the flesh off his ankles, no uneasysleep on bare mountainsides. Here there were blankets and bread forthe days, wine to drown the nights, a quick death around the corner.Better than the mines. Nothing could be worse than the mines.The applause of the games fans flickered uneasily through hismind.

THEA

From the moment I saw Senator Marcus Vibius Augustus Norbanus,I longed to fix him up: give him a proper haircut, get theink stains off his fingers, take his slaves to task for pressing his toga sobadly. He had been divorced for more than ten years, and slaves takeadvantage when there’s no mistress of the house. I would have bet fivecoppers that Marcus Norbanus, who had been consul four times andwas the natural grandson of the God- Emperor Augustus, poured hisown wine and put away his own books just like any pleb widower.“Your name, girl?” he asked, as I offered a tray of little sweetmarchpane pastries.

“Thea, sir.”

“A Greek name.” He had deep- set eyes; friendly, penetrating,aloof. “But not, I think, a Greek. Something too long about the vowels,and the shape of the eyes is wrong. Antiochene, perhaps, but Iwould guess Hebrew.”

I smiled in assent, backing away and examining him covertly. Hehad a crooked shoulder that pulled him off- balance and made himlimp, but it was hardly visible unless he was standing. Seated he wasstill a fine figure of a man, with a noble patrician profile and thickgray hair.

Poor Marcus Norbanus. Your bride will eat you alive.“Senator!” Lepida danced in, fresh and lovely in carnelian silkwith strands of coral about her neck and wrists. Fifteen now, as I was;prettier and more poised than ever. “You’re here early. Eager to seethe games?”

“The spectacle always provides a certain interest.” He rose andkissed her hand. “Though I usually prefer my library.”

“Well, you must change your opinion. For I am quite mad for thegames.”

“Her father’s daughter, I see.” Marcus made a courtly nod toPollio.

Lepida’s father swept his eyes with just a hint of contempt overMarcus’s uncurled hair, the carelessly pressed toga, the mended sandalstrap. He himself was immaculate: snowy linen pleated razor- sharpand perfume heavy enough to tingle the nostrils. Still, no one wouldever mistake him for a patrician. Or Marcus Norbanus for anythingelse.

“So, you really know the Emperor’s niece?” Lepida asked herbetrothed as we left the Pollio house and sallied out into the Aprilsunshine. Her blue eyes were wide with admiration. “Lady Julia?”

“Yes, since she was small.” Marcus smiled. “She and her half- sisterwere playmates of my son’s when they were very young. They haven’tmet since they were children— Paulinus is with the Praetoriansnow— but I still visit Lady Julia now and then. She’s been very downcastsince her father died.”

The wedding morning of Lady Julia and her cousin Gaius TitusFlavius burst clear and blue as we went to watch them join hands atthe public shrine— on foot, since the litters would never get throughthe crowds. I was jostled from side to side by shoving apprentices,avid housewives, beggars trying to slip their hands into my purse.A baker in a flour- sprinkled apron trod heavily on my foot, and Itripped.

Marcus Norbanus caught my arm with surprising agility, settingme on my feet before I could fall. “Careful, girl.”

“Thank you, sir.” I fell behind, chagrined. He really was far tookind to be Lepida’s husband. I’d been praying devotedly for an ogre.

“Oh, look!” Abandoning Marcus’s arm, Lepida elbowed her wayto the front of the crowd. “Look, there they are!”

I peered over Pollio’s shoulder. The shrine of Juno, goddess ofmarriage— and the tall ruddy- cheeked young man beside the priestmust be the bridegroom. He was in high spirits, jostling and jokingwith his attendants. “He’s handsome,” Lepida announced. “Fat,though. Don’t you think?”

Marcus looked amused. “The Flavians tend toward heaviness,” hesaid mildly. “A family trait.”

“Oh. Well, he’s not really fat, is he? Just imposing.”

The blast of Imperial trumpets brazened in our ears. Servants inImperial livery began to wind past. The Praetorian Guard lined theroad in their ceremonial breastplates and red plumes, making way forthe bride. “Is that Lady Julia?” Lepida craned her neck.

I studied the Emperor’s niece curiously— the one who supposedlywanted to be a Vestal Virgin. She was very small, her hair straw- pale,her figure straight and childlike in the white robe. The flaming bridalveil drew all the color out of her face. Her pale lips were smiling, butshe didn’t really look— well, bridal.

“She doesn’t have the complexion for red,” my mistress said, toosoftly for her betrothed to hear. “Her skin’s like an unripe cheese. I’lllook much better at my wedding.”N

The bridal pair joined hands at the shrine, speaking the ritual words:Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia. They exchanged the ritual cake, the rings.

The marriage contracts were signed. The priest intoned prayers, and abellowing white bull gave its blood in a gout over the marble steps asa sacrifice to Juno. Usually Imperial weddings were conducted moreprivately, but Emperor Domitian was a lover of public pomp. So wasthe public.

“She should smile,” Lepida criticized. “No one wants to see a bridelooking like a corpse on her own wedding day.”

Before the procession, the groom had to wrest his bride from hermother’s arms in symbolic theft. Lady Julia’s mother was dead; heruncle stood in for her. She folded the red veil back over her palehair and walked meekly into his arms. As the bridegroom used bothhands to jerk her away, my gaze shifted to the Em...

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