CHAPTER ONE

I

  He stood naked in the little cubicle below the arena sands, a muscular young ox of a man, with wide shoulders thick with muscles and arms that were long and powerful.  Above him he could hear the roar of the crowd as a man screamed. They were in a bloodthirsty mood, up above; when they got like that, it was always a bad business. No missus—spared—would be written after any name today.  Instead, it would be, Occide!  Kill!  And Charon take the hindmost.

  Karthus shrugged.  If the gods were to turn on him this afternoon, so be it.  A gladiator learned philosophy in the arena whether he would or not.  He saw too much of death to be afraid of it. Sometimes he even thought it might be a good thing to die.  Then there would be no more wounds and suffering; no more lashes when he failed to satisfy his owner.

  He had no owner, any more.  Rich old Appius Africanus had made a fortune from fights, and had permitted him to buy his freedom on the condition that he continue as a secutor.  Karthus was not averse to the idea.  A man could grow rich, after a fashion, if he were a good enough swordsman.  Wealthy men who won on him often gave him a share of their winnings. And the women—Venus volgivaga!

  Karthus had lost count of the pampered Roman matrons who waited for him under the Circus arches when he won his victories.  They sent in their chits—little oval, ivory discs on which their names were scratched–for him to make his selection. He scratched his own name under hers and sent it back to the favored one.

  This night, for instance—

  Here, on this disc—the name was Marcia Corvinus.  A new name, a strange name to see in the gladiator's cubicles.  She was a chaste woman, the gossips said, the wife of a rich merchant.  She never came to the Circus arches, but now she had an itch in her flesh and had selected Karthus to scratch it for her.

  Usually he was afraid of rich, important women, because they could strike back at him so easily through a friend in the Senate or the Praetorian Guard.  Sometimes they wanted to own him, wanted to turn him into a perfumed lapdog for their own amusement. He would have no part of that. Marcia Corvinus was a rich woman, with a big town house and a huge villa in the Compagna.  He had sent back her chit with his name under hers because there was a recklessness in him. Perhaps because he was fighting a mounted man for the first time this afternoon. He wondered if he would regret it.

  The voice of the lanista rang in the hall.  Time to stop mooning about rich matrons like Marcia Corvinus and settle down to business.  He was facing a heavyset Thessalian today. The Thessalian would have a horse—he himself would fight on foot.  It was an unequal combat but the Romans cared nothing for fair play; they wanted thrills and excitement and a chance to win some hard sesterces.  Victory always attended the name of Karthus. Today Rome wanted to see what he could do against a man and an animal.

  He chose a soft subligaculum, a cotton loincloth that he bound about his hips three times before he was satisfied with its fit.  He squatted, lunged. The expensive cotton—it was from Egypt and cost one hundred denarii the bolt–gave easily. No chafe then, which meant he fought in comfort.  An itch or a sudden tug at sensitive flesh could play the devil with a sword stroke.

  Over his sword arm he drew the mail sleeve, testing it for pliability, unfastening its black leather strap that fitted across his chest, resetting the buckle, and again testing it.  On his right leg, the one that would be facing the Thessalian, he tied the bronze greave. On his feet he did up the black leather cothurns. Around his waist he buckled a bronze-studded, broad leather belt.

  Then he took down his wide-flanged helmet from its wall peg.  Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of the tiny statue of Mors, the god of death, resting on a wooden shelf.  Before it, was a bronze bowl holding chards of burnt incense. Most gladiators worshiped Hercules for his strength—he worshiped Mors, figuring that if the death god enjoyed his gifts and incense cones, he would keep Karthus alive to continue them.  As much as he worshiped any god, that is. A man made his own good fortune.

  Was there time to burn a stick of natron in the bowl?  No, the fight on the sands was over now. The sudden roar had died down.  He'd best get to the grille before the trumpets blew for his own event. More than half of Rome was in the stands today to see Karthus Victor fight.  He was popular, but a crowd could turn ugly at a fancied slight.

  Karthus grabbed up his shield and sword and ran.

  They were bringing Decius in by a hook caught on his leg, dragging him across the reddened sands as he neared the grille.  There was blood all over him. Decius had been a good man, a friend of sorts, though gladiators made few friends. It shook Karthus to look down into the waxen face lolling sideways.  He drew back to let the hook man pass. The cold stone wall stung his bare back, reminding him he might be like Decius before the day was done—cold meat at the end of a grappling hook.

  Trumpets were blowing.  He moved out into the bright sunlight, blinking slightly.  The cubicles were poorly lighted, the tunnels only by torches every fifty feet.  He heard his name being called by a few throats, then suddenly the whole arena seemed to pick it up.  The noise grew deafening.

  "Karthus, Karthus.  Victory to Karthus!"

  Under the shadow of the helmet his lips twisted into a sneer.  Let him fall, let him be wounded and those same tongues would howl for his destruction.  He would have cost them money.

  He angled his walk toward the imperial box, the pulvinar.  One year ago Caligula would have been sitting there, hunched forward, his wild eyes seeing everything, his thin mouth turned down, madness festering in his brain.  Today a new emperor sat in the ivory chair—Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, uncle of murdered Caligula.

  The Thessalian was coming from the opposite grille, mounted on a spirited bay mare.  He carried the curving sword called a sica, but was allowed no shield.  He was a slim man, wiry and tough.  His name was Thenas, Karthus remembered.

  They came together before the pulvinar.  Thenas jabbed the mare with a toe, making it dance and bob its head.  Both men lifted their swords, crying out the ancient formula, "Morituri te salutamus.  We who are about to die, salute you."

  As he mouthed the words, Karthus found his eyes caught and held by the woman seated beside Claudius on the ebony chair.  It would be Valeria Messalina, the empress. He had heard of her, of course. Who in Rome had not? He was surprised to find her so attractive, with thick yellow hair piled high and set with green rubies.  

  She was staring down at him out of eyes coated with gold dust on their lids.  Her mouth was as red as blood, a moist fruit in her oval face. It was an exciting mouth; it showed passion, he thought wryly, telling himself that he passion of the empress of Rome was nothing to him, a secutor.

  Claudius gestured idly, unconcernedly.  He was not the fanatic that Caligula had been.  Caligula had come down onto the arena sands himself and killed men.  Claudius was a student, a great reader of scrolls and tablets. Rumor said he had a library of ten thousand volumes.

  Messalina put a hand on the marble rim of the imperial box.  "Karthus," she called down. "I have wagered a thousand talents on you this day.  Against the emperor." Her golden eyelids flickered as she glanced sideways. "Win for me!"

  Win for you?  I'll win to stay alive!

  His face was like bronze under the helmet, no matter what his thoughts.  He bowed, making a special salute to the empress with his broad-bladed gladius.  A coterie of her friends applauded his gesture politely.  Messalina nodded, pleased.

 Then Karthus forgot everything but the man on the horse in front of him.  The noise of the crowd was like the hot spring sunlight on his bared back; he was aware of it as he was aware of the sand underfoot; it was there, no more.  His world now was Thenas and the bay mare, and most especially, the curved sica that thirsted for his blood.

  With a shout, Thenas jabbed heels to the horse.  The animal sprang at him as if fired from a catapult.  For the moment Karthus had forgotten that a horse could be a weapon.  The animal banged hard into his shoulder and he swept backward off his feet.

  The sica was overhead and coming at him out of a stench of horseflesh and human sweat.  His shield was wedged between the horse and his side. He could never get it up in time.

  Karthus bent his head.

  The edge of the blade caught his helmet, driving it down hard on his head.  His knees turned rubbery under him and he almost fell. The horse and rider were past but turning to come back, to catch him while his senses were still dazed.

  Karthus staggered sideways, just evading the slashing sica.  Gods!  His head was on fire.  Yet it had been put his helmet under the steel or take it in his flesh.  He told himself wryly, I did the only thing I could. Forget what happened.  First blow to Thenas, last blow to me.

  He ran at the horse, shield up.  The horse reared. Its near hoof lashed down, catching the shield, driving it sideways and away from him, exposing his chest.  His arm felt broken by the fury of that blow, was numb from shock. The pain would come a little later.

  The crowd was bellowing.  Twice had Thenas scored on the famous Karthus.  Head battered, arm as good as broken, he was already beaten.

  Karthus caught the anger of the mob, the savagery of those who had wagered on him and saw their sesterces slipping away.  I ache all over but they hurt more because their purses are affected, he told himself.  He shook his arm, trying to lift the shield. It hung like a dead weight from the straps.

  Grimly he lifted his sword and slashed the leather thongs.  The shield fell to the sands. Now the only had his sword against the man, the sica and the bay mare.  And Thenas was coming for him at a gallop, looming above him and blotting out the sky and the sun.

  The sica came down.  His own edge rose to meet it.

  Sparks flew.  The Thessalian had the advantage of height, on horseback.  He could deliver a blow backed by his weight and position. It cost Karthus strength to turn that heavy slash, strength he could not spare because he was fighting on his own legs this day; Thenas had four to hold him up.

  And the Greeks knew how to take advantage of an opportunity.  The mare was well trained. It fought against him just as bitterly as did its rider.  Duck a swinging sica and an animal's withers knocked him off balance.  Cut at the horse and expose himself to the man. He dodged and darted, panting for breath.  Sweat ran down his chest and thighs. The greave straps bit into his muscular legs.

  The air was a steady roar from eighty thousand throats.

  Karthus was still alive, but only barely.  His mailed arm came up more slowly each time he had to fend away a slash.  His legs looked ready to buckle. Well, the horse was tired, too. The smart thing for Thenas to do now was hop off the mount and cut Karthus to ribbons.  He could never parry a weaving sica the way he did now, in its single slash and run tactics.

  And yet—

  It was folly for Thenas to give up his height.  Ram Karthus with the horse! Get him off his legs!  Then lean far over and—

  Karthus staggered back, his sword battered from his hand.

  The arena erupted with sound.  This was the moment. The favorite was finished.  It was "Occide!" now.  "Kill! Kill!"  Even the losers came to their feet to see the great Karthus humbled.

  Karthus felt death blowing on his spine.  Thenas was turning the horse, coming fast, sica out for the thrust.  Thenas would spit him on the steel before he could leap for his fallen sword, and he was too proud to run.  Suddenly his eyes focused on the sand.

  Karthus drew a swift breath.  There might be a chance!

  He bellowed and ran for the approaching animal, waving his arms.  The mare was startled. It danced sideways.

  A hoof hit the fallen shield, making it slide on the sand.  The mare lost its balance as one leg shot out from under it.  It gave a scream and fell sideways, spilling its rider. Taken by surprise, Thenas went sprawling.

  Karthus leaped.  His big hands went out to wrap thick fingers around the throat of the man beneath him.  Thenas was agile and wiry but he did not possess the bull strength of the secutor.  Flat on his face, he had no chance at all, once those hands closed on his neck.

  Straddling the fallen man, Karthus lifted his wet face to the imperial box.  Even Claudius was staring with interest now. Karthus waited for a sign.

  There was no mercy in the people.  They screamed Karthus to break the neck he held.  Yet Karthus waited. Claudius lifted his right arm, the thumb turned up in the gesture of mercy.  Beside him Messalina smiled coldly—put out her own pale arm and—turned her thumb down.

  Karthus held Thenas motionless between his straddling knees, fingers clenched deep into neck-flesh.  Life, says the emperor. Death, says the empress. Obey one and disobey the other. And to disobey the imperial whim meant death.

  Claudius shrugged and turned away.  His hand fell and its fingers opened.  Messalina leaned forward as if to emphasize her down pointed thumb.  Karthus hunched his back.

  The Thessalian jerked convulsively as his neck snapped.

  He walked across the arena sands with the screams of the mob ringing in his ears.  Karthus victor.  Karthus had won again.  This time against a man and an animal.  No wonder the street-scum called him Charon's helper!  The boatman of the river Styx worked harder ferrying the dead because of him.

  Out of sight of the crowd, hidden by the tunnel wall, he was sick.  Weakness washed over him, a reaction to the nearness of death. Gods!  Charon had come close to having him as a passenger this day. After a moment he felt better.  The lanista was at his elbow with a wineskin.

  "Drink deep, man," he counseled.  "You pleased Valeria Messalina today—almost as much as if you'd bedded her.  A thousand talents is a tidy sum to win, even for an empress."

  The cold Vaticani felt good sliding down his throat.  It put new life into him, warming his stomach. He ran the back of his hand across his lips.

  "My shield," he muttered.  "The sword."

  "I'll fetch them both.  Go on, go on. I've sent a slave boy with cold water to throw on you.  Wash down and think of the night. You ought to do well with the matrons, now."  He chuckled. "Their blood'll be boiling after what they saw today."

  He had forgotten about Marcia Corvinus.

II

  Valeria Messalina leaned back onto the black leopard skins that covered the ivory lectus in the imperial box.  Her breasts had grown hard above the twist of linen that held them outward and supported them from below as she watched the battle between Karthus and the mounted Thessalian.  Desire was a flame in her belly.

  She would have liked to fight a man like Karthus in the arena, stripped naked with a sword in her hand.  Closing her eyes, she visualized the combat, her ripe mouth curving lazily as she imagined blows given and blows received.  She imagined him with a retarius net, throwing it over her golden hair and holding her helpless as his sword thrust, thrust into her...

  She sighed, moving her thighs together.

  Opening her eyes, she studied the striped awning covering the pulvinar.  She was bored. Her life, ever since she had become empress of Rome, had been nothing but a series of feasts and entertainments–one more lavish than the next—and lovers of who she tired quickly.  She let her head turn sideways so that she might see her husband.

  Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

  A magnificent name for a stupid ninny of a man.  See him now with his head shaking endlessly as it always did, due to some illness of which no physician could cure him.  A cripple, always dragging one foot a little behind the other. A stammerer who could scarce speak half a dozen words without spilling a gibberish of sound all over the place.

  She had known when she married him that he was no Apollo, of course. How she and her friends had giggled at one of the imperial feasts when he had come late.  Caligula, his nephew, was still emperor then and no one would help him find a seat so he just wandered back and forth like a big booby until somebody, somewhere, pushed him onto a couch.  And later when he was drunk, the guests would pelt his wagging head with olive pits and chunks of garbage, calling him the madman.

  She had married him because there had been Caesarian blood in his veins.  Through his father, Drusus, he could trace his blood line back to Julius Caesar.  It was a feather in the cap of the fifteen year old girl she had been, ninny or not.  His nephew was an emperor. His uncle Tiberius had been an emperor. And was not his granduncle Augustus Caesar?  Yes, he came of a good line. It was too bad he had to be the disgrace of the family.

  Claudius was a coward, too.  Had not the Praetorian guardsman, who dubbed him Caesar after Caligula was assassinated, had to drag him out from behind a hanging where he had taken refuge, fearing death himself?  She wished that the guard had struck him down!

  Or—did she?

  After all, she was empress of Rome and the most powerful woman in the world.  Valeria Messalina supposed now. She had a stupid husband who had been the laughingstock of Rome before a fickle fate put the laurel wreath on his big head.  Her teeth nibbled at her full lower lip as she considered Fate. True, she had a stupid husband now, but—if destiny were given a helping hand—she might not have a stupid husband but a young and handsome one instead, in a year or two.

  She wondered how long it took to incite rebellion.

  It should not be too difficult.  This man who was emperor and who took a childish delight in parading through the courts of Rome to sit as magistrate, was ripe for overthrow.  Everyone who was anybody in Rome laughed at him. When he was struck down, they would still laugh. She was certain of it.

  Her heavy mouth pouted willfully.  No one yet had ever refused her anything she wanted.  Even Claudius indulged her whims, most fatuously. Secretly, Valeria Messalina thought that the emperor stood in awe of her, first because of her beauty, secondly, because of her wit.  She kept him always amused, even to the extent of furnishing pretty prostitutes for his bed at night.

  Naturally, while he dallied with them, Messalina dallied with pretty slave boys and handsome young knights—even senators on occasion.  She was aware that she was developing a reputation for amorality that would have done Scylla proud—Scylla was a Sicilian harlot, reputed to be the most expensive in all Rome—but she did not care.  Without something to make her forget the days and the nights, life was an endless bore.

  She wished desperately that she could think something to interest her.  Twice in the past week she had watched as the palace slave master flogged two pretty slave girls to death, but even cruelty palls after a while.  No, she needed something more than sheer cruelty.

  There was Claudius, of course.  She could always make him squirm with her barbed words and her superior smile.  He was only too well aware that fate had played a joke on him and the Roman Empire when he became emperor.  She would reminded him of this, and of the fact that he was just a simpleton, when the mood came upon her. Claudius would lift his head from a scroll—he had a great number of scrolls and liked to think o himself as a scholar—and simper at her while she paced back and forth, dissecting him verbally as a botanist might dissect a leaf on a pin.

  Angrily she opened and closed her fingers.  Claudius would never fight with her. Always he listened, always he nodded his shaking head, always he agreed.  She sighed. If only he would strike her when she grew shrewish! The old fool probably thought he'd lose her if he did.

  Valeria Messalina needed a master, someone who would cuff her if she acted the bitch, wallop her buttocks as Roman husbands used to do to their wives in the days of the Republic, when they merited such treatment.  No fear of Claudius doing that to her, however.

  Someone like that Karthus, now.  Or Selurus, the Cappadocian secutor.  They would beat her if she grew fractious.  As would Caligula when he had been emperor, had she been married to him.  Messalina had been a little afraid of mad Caligula; one never knew which way he would turn when the megrims seized him, whether he would laugh or weep or—worst of all—foam at the mouth in one of his incoherent rages.

  Messalina shivered, remembering how Caligula had gone out onto the arena sand from time to time and fought gladiators.  Always he won; no one really dared to fight him. If the secutor or retarius man were lucky, the emperor would spare his life and make him rich with gifts.  If Fortuna failed to smile that day, the man might find the imperial sword thrusting down and into his throat. It was a chance one took when the emperor honored a man by dueling with him.

 She would like to duel a gladiator.

  Earlier, while Karthus had been fighting, she had imagined she was the Thessalian on the horse.  Gods, how her loins had itched at the thought.

  The empress blinked.  Well, why not?

  She was the most powerful woman in the world.  Her whim was a royal command. She would seek out Karthus, demand that he fight her.  He dared not refuse.

  "Drusilla!  Drusilla, you pretty bitch—where are you?"

  A blonde girl came running, long yellow hair flying in a ponytail, her slim body covered by a sheer tunic of Egyptian linen.  She was a barbarian wench out of the forests of Dacia. Messalina had bought her three years ago in the great slave market along the Septa Julia for a hundred thousand sesterces.  She was probably the most beautiful slave in all Rome. It amused Messalina to parade her in front of her guests at banquets and listen to them bid for her services, then turn them all down.

  "My cloak, Drusilla.  I've a headache and I'm tired."  She gave her back to the emperor who was turning solicitously at her words.  "Tell Nexus to bring the chariot around. I'm going home."

  It was an affront to leave the pulvinar before the emperor but Valeria Messalina gathered her purple stolla in her hand and swept past the couches where the imperial favorites lay and nibbled grapes.  She was aware the Narcissus—Claudius' secretary and general factotum—eyed her with hate in his cold black eyes but she smiled sweetly at him even while she kicked his shin as she went past.

  His indrawn hiss of pain made her laugh.

  It augured well for the evening.  Selurus? Or Karthus? Which would it be?  Karthus was younger, a great favorite with the people.  Selurus was a byword among the Roman matrons, who called him by the pet name, Priapula.

  Of course, no matter which man she chose, he would have to die after he had fought her and taken her body, as she meant him to do.  Valeria Messalina might give herself to many men and allow them to live, but not to a commoner who knew her to be the empress. If he did not know her, it would make no difference, naturally.  To do otherwise would be laesa majestas.

  Treason.

III

  She stood beside an amphitheatre pillar, wrapped in a black paenula that hid her from head to toe as he came through the long black shadows of the columns.  Karthus saw her stir, move toward him. Under the gold embroidered hem of her cloak, white leather sandals showed tiny clasps of gold. Her thick brown hair was done up in a chignon, with thin lengths of gold holding the heavy strands.

  The ivory chit which she had sent to him promised good food and expensive Falernian wine.  They would have privacy in her bedchamber, her husband was in Tarentum on business, and she hungered for his caresses.

  A recklessness walked with Karthus.  It had been a near thing with him, back there on the sands.  Mors had almost gotten his fingers into him, despite his gifts and incense burning.  It was good to feel the easy flex of muscles as he walked, to smell the cooling air, to see a woman waiting for his embraces.

  Ordinarily he would have bowed politely and exchanged meaningless talk with Marcia Corvinus, but there was a need in him for sensation, for the feel of life beneath his hands and not of death.  He put up his palms and touched the woman of either side of her warm face while his thumbs felt the pulse beat at the base of her throat.

  "Karthus, I was so worried," she whispered.

  "No more than I," he said somberly.

  He let his palms slide downward to her breasts, cupping them.  They were heavy, soft with maturity yet firming swiftly to his caressing fingers.  He thought of them as symbols of the life for which he hungered at this moment, of the womanhood that had been worshiped by all races since the dawn of Time.

  Marcia Corvinus sensed something of his emotions and stood quietly as might a Suburra harlot for her wares to be judged.  This big man intended no indignity to her pride, however. It was, instead, as if he searched for some hold with which to clutch at life.

  Her mind might tell her that this was all he wanted, but her flesh betrayed her excitement.  Under the thin stolla she felt her nipples distend to his touch, rise eagerly in mute surrender.  Her eyes closed and her lips fell open to aid her hurried breathing.

  Then his lips were hunting hers and she felt herself lifted, crushed in two arms that held her against him so that her leather sandals came off the ground.  She was a soft, warm toy to him, a plaything with which to relieve the tensions that made him tremble.

  After a moment he put her down, so weak that she had to lean against a pillar for support.  Venus volgivaga!  She had not felt like this in years.  Her recent hunt for sensation, for the excitements of her more youthful years, was finding swift fulfillment.  Now he leaned against her and when Marcia Corvinus felt his powerful body touch her own softness, her senses swam.

  "Not here," she breathed, thinking he meant to take her as he might a common street walker.

  The last light of day caught his white teeth as he grinned.  Venus of the hungry loins! He was so big, so muscular. Almost a man of bronze like the statue of Mars in her atrium.  Her husband Quintus Pompilius was a paunchy, balding man, more interested in his fleet of corn ships that traveled Mare Nostrum, than in his wife.  For a long time she had dreamed of romance with just such a youth; always it had been a chimera that faded with the dawn.

  His arm hooked her still slender waist and swung her away from the column so she could walk beside him.  Where he touched her, she burned like fire in votive bowl. This was no chimera, no dream. As she half ran beside him, laughing up into his face, she understood at last why her friends, married matrons all, frequented the Flavian amphitheatre and its pillared adits.

  "Sweet tarts," he was saying, "heaped with berries.  I always have a handful right after I fight. I'll treat you at a stall.  Com on."

  Gods!  To eat berry tarts at a street shop again, after all these years.  How long ago was it? Surely twenty years or more since her governess had treated her one afternoon, to bribe her to silence about where they had been and what the governess had done with the stable boy.  She trailed a laugh into the late afternoon dusk.

  They moved across the Via Biberatica to the shops which lined this corner of the Forum.  A row of stone fronted stalls, open to the air, were crowded with people who had been at the Circus.  They called out to Karthus with delight, parting to make an alleyway for him and his companion. The woman held a corner of her cloak across her flushed cheeks to prevent recognition.  She was not quite bold enough to flaunt an affair before Quintus Pompilius–she hoped no one would know her.

  His huge hands were like platters, holding four tarts on each.  "Go on, take them," he was urging. Giggling, she did what he said, cramming her mouth with the juicy berries and freshly baked short-breads

  Oh, it was fun.  Almost as much fun as the Saturnalia in December, when men and women were given the freedom of the city by custom and where every street corner held an orgy.  Marcia Corvinus herself had never taken part in the festival, but she had heard her more daring friends relate their own experiences, and forbidden chills had raced down her spine at each telling.  A wetness of berry juice ran down from the corner of her mouth. She felt Karthus press her close as his tongue licked up the sweetness.

  Her eyes closed and her every muscle loosened at the touch of his tongue on her flesh.  He must have felt her surrender, for he drew in his breath sharply and ran his big palm over her soft buttocks.

  "The wine shop next," he whispered, "then to my house."

  She shook her head.  "My house, Karthus. There would be talk if I—came in late or even in—in the morning."

  His voice laughed at her as he asked, "And what of me?  Won't your neighbors gossip if they see me sneaking from the street door when it's dawn?"

  "I would say you'd come to visit my maid."

  His arm drew her from the tart sellers along the cobblestones.  "You don't do this often, do you? I mean, send your chit to a gladiator?"

  "This is the first time."

  Karthus was silent for a little while, busy with his thoughts.  Marcia Corvinus was not all the sort of woman he had expected, painted and with her breasts put on display by a narrow strip of swathing called a strophia, a recent innovation among Roman women started by Messalina herself.  There was an attractiveness about her, however. Her very lack of sophistication was a lure that drew him as the lodestone does the iron.

  He would make the night a memorable one for her.  Growing older, she probably sough to relive a little of her youth—to be reassured as to her loveliness.  He had heard Roman matrons babble how he made them feel younger, more desirable, while they writhed and twisted in his embrace.  Suddenly he wanted to make Marcia Corvinus feel this same youthfulness.

  He drew the woman into a wine shop.  It was a narrow store, with shelves lining two walls, filled with amphorae and jars of red Samian ware, wax impressions announcing their contents as expensive Setinian and Falernian, or the cheaper Massic and Vaticani.  Ordinarily, Karthus would have purchased the Massic; it had a tart taste and you could drink more of it without after effects. As he glanced down at the woman, he decided suddenly to squander two sesterces on the Setinian.

  She reached for the silk purse at her girdle as he gave his order but his hand caught her wrist and he shook his head gently.  Marcia Corvinus flushed, fearing she had offended him. His grin as he took the plump wineskin handed him by the proprietor reassured her.

  He caught her hand and drew her with him, back onto the street.  The wineskin dangled by its cord from his wrist. He began to sing a little ditty popular along the waterfront of Ostia, swinging the heavy skin back and forth in time with the melody.  Though the verses made her skin crawl in excitement—she had never read Ovid of Lucullus—she sang them with him after a time.

  Neither of them saw the slave who followed, keeping well in the shadows lest he be seen.  As they crossed the via Lata and stood a moment before the bronze street door of the house of Quintus Pompilius, the slave took to his heels.

  The fuaces were cool as they slipped in through the doorway.  This vestibule, as in most Roman homes, permitted the visitor to see through the atrium to the inner courtyard beyond, which was richly decorated with flowers and a fountain.  Torches on the wall gave off a dim light that added to the sense of conspiracy between them.

  Marcia reached for his hand, drew him after her, past the marble impluvium that held rainwater which dripped from the open roof of the atrium, and into the central room.  Here in the tablinum were displayed the wax masks of her husband's ancestors, together with a number of oak chest holding the scrolls which contained family records.

  Then the peristyle opened before them and high in the sky they could see the moon with the first faint spangling of stars.  There was perfume in the air, from flowers that nodded their petals to a wind off the Tiber. Marcia Corvinus ran along a pathway between the flower beds, her laughter pulling him after her.  He caught her near the fountain and its waters made a muted splashing as his arms went about her slim middle, pulling her back to him.

  His palms caught her breasts through the thin Coan linen of her stolla, sliding under the heavier cloth of her strophia to free them from its grip.  Her breasts were large with maturity but his gladiator's hands made them seem almost small.  His loins moved slowly against her soft buttocks.

  Marcia Corvinus breathed faster.  Her eyes were closed, her lips slightly open to aid her breathing.  Aion, god of Time, move your sands slowly, slowly! Let this fevered pleasure last and last.  It's been so long since my blood had run like wildfire—since my knees have quivered to such ecstasy.

  She would have turned in his arms but his muscles were like bands of iron.  She sensed suddenly that the night lay before them, that this sweetness was to be prolonged indefinitely for her.  Tears of gratitude flooded her eyes.

  How long they stood in this silent communion of the senses, she never knew.  It was broken by his teeth gripping her soft neck where it met her shoulder. Almost savagely he shook her with his teeth so that she gave a cry of mingled pain and pleasure.

  "The wine," he rasped hoarsely, and let her go.

  She staggered as he freed her, putting her hands to her cheeks.  Venus Meretrix in your role of harlot—give me of your carnal wisdom this night, that I may savor every instant of delight!  She stared at him with wide eyes, as though he might be Apollo come to Earth.

  He was raising the wineskin, holding it so she could drink.  No Grecian kylix for her, or cup of beaten gold. Only the spout between her lips and the rich Setinian flooding down her throat, warming her insides.  When she was done, he kissed her, his tongue rimming her lips as if to taste the wine before he drank of it himself.

  As his head tilted back she stepped forward and put her hands on him, holding him, watching his heavy throat muscles as he swallowed.  She had never felt so molten with wanting. This night he could do with her as he pleased, treat her like whore or goddess. It made no different, just so long as he assuaged this fury in her blood.

  As the wineskin fell from his hand, she whispered,  "My room is just beyond the sun dial, Karthus. The bed is soft, the air scented.  Only two torches have been lighted."

  He nodded and bent to swing her up into his arms, carrying her easily across the tiled pavement toward the shadowed recess of her doorway.  He bowed his head to enter—even so, the heavy maroon hanging brushed his tawny hair.

  She slid down his body until her sandaled feet touched the floor.  Her heavy cloak, the paenula, had fallen in the vestibule. All she wore now was her stolla, the strophia beneath her breasts, and a thin, short camisa.  He watched her as she backed away, suddenly shy.

  Marcia Corvinus felt like a schoolgirl.  It was as if she had never bared her body to a man.  Her hand trembled as it rose to the jeweled torque holding her stolla at a shoulder.  It came free and began its downward slide. Her shoulders and then her breasts, held up and forward by the strophia so that her rigid brown nipples appeared to point straight at him, came into view.  The stolla slipped to her thighs and pooled at her feet. Only the camisia of sheer linen, hid her nakedness.

  Slowly he lifted his hands to the tie strings of his embroidered tunic, his eyes never leaving her body, exposed by the Coan linen as through white mist.  She was still slim, thank Venus! Her legs were white and shapely, her hips gently rounded. As if he would memorize her every feature, he continued to regard her nudity while his hand tossed his tunic onto a nearby tripod.

  Marcia Corvinus stared.  In his scant subligaculum he seemed like a bronze statue.  Muscles ridged his torso and thick thighs. His waist was lean, hard.  He must exercise almost naked in the sun, every day, she thought, beginning to tremble.

  He was a god!  Hercules, surely, with all those muscles!  She must have him in her arms without delay.  Dazedly she watched him approach and extend a hand, tangling the thin linen of her camisia between his fingers and ripping hard.  She stumbled against him, drawn forward by that tug. Naked, she pressed into him and her hands went to his hips. She felt his cotton subligaculum under her palms as her breasts rubbed across his chest.

  She tried to tear it, but only made him laugh.

  He said, "Here, let me."

  The cotton garment fell.  Now he was Priapus, not Hercules!  But god or not, he was a man. The woman gave a little cry and hurled herself against him.  Their lips came together as his arms banded her softness.

  "A pretty sight," said a mocking voice.  "To bad I am not Felix Misenius, that I might sculpt your pose for all eternity."

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