Authors: Carla Capshaw
elonia couldn't sleep. She tossed and turned on her hard pallet, her body begging for slumber, her mind too conflicted to rest. She kept envisioning Caros's dejected face when she'd taunted him. How could she have suggested she'd murder him or that God would forgive her for the crime? Yes, she'd been angry, but such meanness wasn't her way.
She didn't feel like herself anymore. Her whole life had changed for the bitter. She closed her eyes and tried to pray, once again asking for forgiveness and direction. Afterward, her heart was lighter, but God seemed just as distant.
She gazed out the open window. It would be dawn soon, but for now an array of stars twinkled in the tar-black sky. As a child, she'd loved gazing into the night, memorizing the constellations her tutors had shown her. A smile curved her mouth as she remembered her father pointing out different celestial patterns and teaching her the wonders of God's creation. With true gratitude, she thanked the Lord for those sweet memories.
Giving up on sleep, she flipped away the light covering and stood. Stiff muscles protested as she crossed the tiny
room she'd inhabited since Caros brought her here from the slave quarters eight days ago. She wondered when she would join the other slaves. Surely Caros had better use for the space than to allow her a private chamber.
She rested her palms on the windowsill. The first rose-colored streaks of dawn painted the horizon. A cool breeze ruffled her hair and a dog barked in the distance, the only sound amid the silence.
Steps shuffled in the hall. Someone pounded on the portal loud enough to wake the deepest sleeper.
“It's time to rise,” Lucia commanded through the closed portal.
“Be quick about it. Find out what herbs Cook needs from the garden and fetch them for him.”
Pelonia changed her tunic and wrapped the shawl around her shoulders before venturing into the corridor. A series of lanterns lit the way downstairs to the back of the house. A pair of guards waited at attention by the rear door. With a hurried greeting to the giant, dark-skinned Africans, she crossed outside into the fresh air. The smell of baking bread made her mouth water.
Following the brick path to the kitchen, she glimpsed Caros training with a sword in the peach orchard. A look of concentration etched his handsome face. He didn't see her. Free to watch him without the expectation of conversation, she halted, mesmerized by the power and grace of his movements. He reminded her of music come to life in human form. Even the scar that looked like the swipe of a lion's claw across his chest did nothing to detract from his appeal.
“Don't fall in love with him,” Lucia said, slithering up beside her. “If any woman ever claims his heart, it will be me.”
Pelonia turned to see the healer fixed on Caros with a
hungry gleam in her eyes. “You have nothing to fear from me. The man I choose to love will be the exact opposite of Caros Viriathos.”
“How so?” Lucia's gaze never left her master.
“I want my husband to share my faith.”
“Husband?” The healer snickered. “You're a slave. Why do you think you'll be permitted to marry?”
Pelonia frowned. “I won't always be a prisoner here. I refuse to believe I'll never have a family of my own.”
Lucia snorted. “You should be thankful you're alive and give up your fanciful notions.”
“It's not fanciful to have faith. Circumstances can change as quickly as an ocean current.”
“Like your fortunes did the day you came here?”
“Yes,” Pelonia admitted, stung by Lucia's harsh reminder.
“Then I can do without your faith. Why serve a deity who finds pleasure in making you a slave?”
For a moment, Pelonia grappled for an answer. Lucia's question echoed the very words she'd asked herself so often since coming here. She glanced away from Lucia's sneer to find Caros had finished his practice.
Her face flushed with pleasure when she noticed him watching her. Embarrassed by her reaction, she sought out Lucia's harsh features like a lifeline.
“My God's ways are a puzzle at times,” she said, clinging to her beliefs when she had little else to offer. “But I believe He'll work all for my good if I'm patient and wait for Him to reveal His purpose.”
“Then you're a fool. Why wait for your God to cause you more pain? Why not take matters into your own hands?”
A rooster crowed. Caros went off to the gladiators' barracks. Two other slaves finished feeding the animals and walked past them into the house.
“I could arrange for your freedom,” Lucia said once they were alone.
Pelonia's heart quickened. A surge of hope welled inside her as did her suspicion. “Why take such a risk? If Caros found out, he'd punish us both.”
Lucia flipped her long black braid over her shoulder. “Isn't it obvious? I want the master for myself. Somehow you've bewitched him. He hasn't been himself since you came here. He's only waiting for your body to heal before he claims you, but I'm certain he'd forget you if you'd just disappear.”
Why shouldn't she listen to Lucia? Both of them would have what they wanted if she accepted the healer's help. “When could you arrange for me to leave?”
The morning light gave Lucia's face a reddish cast. She smiled. “As early as tonight if you're willing.”
Caros added another ladle of water to the red-hot coals. The liquid sizzled and steam filled the circular chamber of the bathhouse. He leaned against the warm marble wall, sweat beading on his skin.
After the morning's sword practice and another taxing workout in the bath's gymnasium, he hurt all over. Little wonder. His fight with Alexius yesterday had left his ribs bruised and his jaw throbbing. He'd been mad to double his usual exercise. Even more foolish to believe the added work would hinder his thoughts from straying to the unwelcome emotions Pelonia stirred in him.
The steam room's door swung wide. He opened one eye and stifled a groan when he saw Spurius Albius swiping a path through the curling white vapor. As always, Caros's temper flared at the sight of his former master, the man who'd stolen ten years of his life.
“There you are, Caros.” Spurius's jowls bobbled as he spoke. “Gaius informed me I might find you here.”
“What do you want? I'm on my way to the
I'm in need of a cold swim before I head home.”
“Leaving already?” Spurius hefted himself onto one of the marble ledges, adjusting his loincloth to accommodate his massive girth and stubby legs. “Isn't it too soon in the day?”
Caros closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall. “Not since you arrived.”
Spurius chuckled. “Then I'll go straight to the point. I want you to fight again.”
Caros lifted his head, battling his annoyance. “Why do you insist on vexing me with your endless attempts to drag me back to the arena? I've told you no a hundred times.”
“I'm persistent. Besides, it's been a fortnight since you last turned me down.”
“And I believe I told you if you asked me again I'd feed you to Cat.”
Spurius shrugged. “I'm tough as old leather. He'd just spit me out.”
“But he might enjoy gnawing on you first.”
“If we were in your home, I might be frightened. But hereâ” Spurius motioned to the rising steam “âI'm safe.”
“Not with me in the chamber.”
Spurius used the edge of a cloth to wipe the sweat from his brow. “I know you hate me, but we both know you won't harm me no matter how much you'd like to see me dead. You were a condemned man once. I doubt you'd allow yourself to return to that lowly state.”
Caros grunted, unable to argue with the truth. Ending the worm's life would please him to no end, but it wasn't worth sacrificing all he'd achieved. “Exactly. Neither will I return to the games. Entering the arena requires me to
place myself back in bondage. Rome itself will fall before I'll forfeit my freedom or be forced to acknowledge another master.”
“You're too proud, Caros.” Spurius sighed. “The truth is the mob is easily bored. Every day, it grows more difficult to arrange the grand events the crowd demands. The mob wants
their champion, and the games' sponsors are willing to pay any price for the spectators' continued enjoyment.”
Caros tossed another ladle of water on the coals. “I'm retired, old man. If you wish to do business with me, speak to Gaius about Alexius or one of my other champions. Otherwise, distance yourself from my presence. My patience with you is over.”
“But think of the riches you'd win,” Spurius cajoled one last time. “You're still the best gladiator alive.”
“I'm already rich. On the other hand, Alexius's talents are for sale.”
Taking the hint, Spurius's shoulders slumped in capitulation. “Since you've brought up Alexius, why can't you be more like him? There's a man who understands and enjoys his place in the world.”
“He's a slave by choice. If he wanted his freedom I'd let him have it.”
Spurius frowned. “You've condemned me as a villain because I refused to sell you your freedom when you demanded it. But I ask you, what man would happily give up a gold mine? I was a fool to give the mob its way the day they chanted for your release. In the last three years I've lost ten fortunes for my drunken error.”
Caros stood and tightened the cloth around his hips. “You're a fool, old man, drunk or otherwise.”
“True enough, but I'm also determined. One of these days I'll tempt you out of retirement. You can be sure of it.”
Pelonia sensed Caros's arrival in the garden before she heard him. Perching on tiptoe, she craned her neck for a better view of the herb-lined path. Caros and another man approached. Both were dark, tall and broad shouldered, but Caros moved with a grace that rivaled his tiger's. Breathless, she couldn't take her eyes off him.
He caught her staring and without warning sent the other man away. Without breaking their gaze, he closed the distance between them. “Why are you out here in the heat of the day?”
“Your steward assigned me to garden duty. I understood I'm to work here every day.”
“I'll speak with him. There are easier tasks in the house.”
“No, this is fine.” She didn't want to rile Gaius. The old man could make her life miserable if he chose. “I tended flowers and maintained a large vegetable garden for my father's household.”
He crossed his arms over his chest. The gold wristbands he wore glinted in the sun. “If you came from a wealthy family, as you claim, why toil like a slave?”
Disliking the accusation in his question, Pelonia plucked a low-hanging leaf from the lemon tree and breathed in the citrus scent. “Simply because I enjoy planting something, caring for it and watching it grow.”
“I see. And how is it you never married? I'd expect a woman of your advanced age to have children of her own to nurture.”
age? Are you trying to insult me?” she asked with mock severity.
“By the gods,
He shifted uncomfortably. “But most women wed by the age of twelve or thirteen summers. You've yet to wrinkle, butâ¦how old are you?”
“Seventeen.” She bit her lip to keep from laughing at his discomfort. “And you? You have enough wrinkles for both of us, so I'd guess you areâ¦?”
“Twenty-eight.” He fingered the faint lines around his right eye. “Are you saying you find me ugly and withered?”
She laughed for the first time since her father died. “Goodness, no, but all the scars were a bit off-putting at first.”
He sighed with exaggerated relief and led her to a bench beside the fountain. “Were? Does that mean my scars no longer bother you?”
In truth, she no longer noticed them. Not when the uniqueness of his azure eyes and the male beauty of his sculpted lips claimed all of her attention. “No, they don't bother me.”
“Good.” His gaze dipped to the ground and she saw the beginnings of a smile curve his mouth. He brushed a thick curl of black hair from his forehead. “But you have yet to answer me. What's wrong with you that you never married?”
She rolled her eyes. “There's nothing
with me. My father was an unconventional man. He thought it best I wed the husband of my choosing. I've yet to make the fortunate man's acquaintance.”
Caros's laughter filled the garden. “Aha! Another woman in search of a perfect man. I doubt you'll find him.”
Pelonia fought her own grin. “I've no wish for a perfect man. Just one who's perfect for me.”
“Perhaps you've met him, but don't realize it. What if he wereâ¦one of my men?”