Friday, April 3, 2009

Caesar's Mercy of Love by Penny Ash and Jade Morrison

“My Lord,” she bowed her head her cheeks reddened in embarrassment and anger. Silently she vowed he would regret his treatment of her. She was the only daughter of Antonius, powerful and well respected in the Senate, even Caesar would think twice before angering her father. She had given herself to him recognizing the opportunity to rule Rome.

Her father had raised her to have pride in her family, in their history, and to dream of one day rising to the ultimate power. No, Antonius would not be pleased to hear of his daughter being so grievously mistreated by Caesar.

She allowed herself a small private smile and followed Caesar out of the Colosseum. It had cost much and the old woman had veiled her prophecy in threats of dire consequences if Tacita were unfaithful but she had the word of the soothsayer she consulted she would be empress. And once she was crowned empress, well, empresses had ruled alone before.

Tacita followed the rest of the court, ignoring the furtive glances of speculation and pity. She would remember who had joined in her humiliation and who had not. And when the time came, her revenge would be cold and sweet.

Her gaze fell on Senator Marcellus. He favored her with a small wintry smile. She raised one eyebrow and was gratified to receive a faint nod. He did not like Laurentius Caesar any more than she did, even though she slept with the arrogant man. And worse Caesar was a poor lover, always wanting to be gentle and loving.

* * * *

Laurentius walked down the great hall toward his chambers seething inside, the brief amusement afforded by embarrassing Tacita swept away by his anger. The more he thought of her betrayal the angrier he became. Tacita had dared to shame him by taking another into her bed. Many other men as well, from what his spies told him. Of course, she had to have known her indiscretions would be discovered and she would never be his empress when he found out. She could not be so stupid as to think she could deceive him.

He thought for a moment and almost stopped to confront her again. Yes, she could be, and was, that stupid. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place. Taci had always been ambitious, always plotting and scheming. He remembered a chance remark made not long after he had brought her from her father’s estate outside the city. “An empress may rule in her husband’s absence,” she had said, her tongue unguarded after making love. He had thought it concern for him at the time, now he knew better. Stupid of her to entertain thoughts of betrayal. And even less prudent to think she could plot against him.

He slowed as he entered the polished white marble audience hall of the palace and his gaze fell on a small figure kneeling on the floor. A servant. One did not usually notice them at their work, but the way the lamplight fell on this one’s pale hair invited closer inspection. Laurentius couldn’t remember having seen a slave with hair that looked like spun sunlight even as dirty as it was. At his nod his private guard quickly moved toward the huddled person, intent on removing the offense to Caesar. With a second thought, Laurentius lifted his hand and they halted, awaiting his orders.

Ordinarily he would have the unfortunate recipient of his attention taken out and beaten. This day was different, this day he was in a harsh mood. He would see to the punishment himself, he had the need to take his anger out on something.

He walked slowly toward the worker, moving to stand in front of the palace servant. He mistook the slightness of shape for one of the slave children at first, but she pushed her hair back over her shoulder and he saw the full breasts and taut nipples of a woman. Breasts yet again, he thought with a heavy mental sigh, the bane of all men. He moved to step in front of her and she raised a slender arm, stopping his progress. Anger flushed his skin, it seemed to be his day for uninvited contact. He waited for an explanation, his hand on the pommel of his sword.

* * * *

Auriel worked as quickly and silently as possible, scrubbing the floor of the great audience hall. She truly hated to be given chores anywhere near the royal apartments. Usually she managed to avoid them by doing the less pleasant tasks no one else wanted to do. But Rufa was ill and Pulvillus was hiding somewhere, so it fell to her.

Born a slave in a Roman garrison deep in the wilds of Britannia, she had long ago resigned herself to her fate. When she was old enough to lift a bucket she was put to cleaning floors. In her tenth summer she was sold into the household of the governor of Gaul, caring for his three small children. And when the children had been carried off, one by one, sad victims of illness or accident, the governor had returned to Rome and sold her to a senator.

She had learned to avoid attention quickly when she saw how the other young female slaves were treated. Survival lay in hiding her hair and budding body under several layers of filth and loose rags. The senator had finally married and, seeing through the dirt and grime, the jealous and shrewd new wife promptly gave her to Caesar.

Given her own choice, she would have been content to go unnoticed in a minor land owner’s house somewhere far from Rome. But a slave’s life was subject to the whims of her master, or her master’s wife, and so here she was in the palace of the ruler of the civilized world scrubbing a fine marble floor and thinking of maybe sitting in the kitchens with Amandus when her work was done. Amandus looked beyond her protective camouflage and indicated a certain interest.

Auriel sighed and let her thoughts wander to Caesar. She had seen Laurentius Caesar a handful of times as she went about her work, and while she did think he was beautiful with his thick dark hair and green eyes, she would rather go unnoticed by him. She was content with the attentions of another slave and to admire Caesar from afar. She had learned in her short life that, like all men of power and wealth, a man on his level was dangerous. And she very much liked being alive.

Intent on her work and the wandering of her thoughts, she did not hear the sound of footsteps until they drew near. She quickly raised her arm to stop whoever it was from marring her newly cleaned and polished floor. The hall floor was large and she did not want to have to repeat the chore of washing it. Turning her head to see who she had stopped, she expected to see another slave or one of the guards. Her heart nearly stopped when she saw the richness of the sandals ornamented in gold and precious gems. This would not be good. She sighed, resigned to whatever would happen, and looked up into the angry deep green eyes of Caesar himself.

“My Lord, the floor is wet and slippery, dangerous to walk upon,” she said, her voice shaky. If she was lucky he would merely have her beaten. If not he would strike her down where she knelt for daring to touch Caesar. Silently she apologized to Rufa. Blood was so hard to clean from a marble floor.

* * * *

Laurentius saw the fear and resignation in the deep grey eyes and unaccountably his anger dissipated. He raised one eyebrow at the girl, remaining quiet for a long moment. He could have her executed on the spot, and in fact he really should. Let one slave get by with something and they all would expect it. But he had never been wasteful and the girl was shapely. And, of course, there were those breasts he would like to get his hands on.

His gaze traveled over the lush curves her loose slave’s dress didn’t quite hide. Or, he could be generous and merely beat her, the slaves would learn from that as well. For some strange reason he found the idea of harming this girl distasteful. He wondered what she looked like under all that dirt. Those breasts looked to be a nice handful. He felt a stirring of desire low in his belly.

“Thank you,” he said softly in a voice only she could hear. Amusement tickled, one did not thank slaves. He smiled then, an expression of malice, an idea of the perfect revenge for Tacita’s arrogance slowly formed in his thoughts. He let the smile slip from his face and took a deep calming breath. Yes, this would be satisfying in more ways than one. And Tacita would be thoroughly humiliated.

Turning quickly before he betrayed his growing lust, he strode back to his entourage. He motioned his guard over and stepped away from the others, taking care to be within earshot of Tacita. “Take the girl to my private bath. Have her bathed and clothed in something blue, dress her hair, and deliver her to my chambers in one hour. I’ve a taste for something fresh and clean tonight,” he said with a glance at Tacita. She was livid. The guard nodded his understanding, saluting and turning to carry out his orders.

“Oh, and Cassius,” Laurentius said conversationally, “no one touches her aside from the bath servants, no one looks at her, she travels the corridors veiled.” His instructions delivered, he turned to the others, a wolfish smile on his face, and motioned them toward the palace atrium.

“I have been informed the floor is not safe to tread upon, let us go and refresh ourselves in the atrium,” Laurentius said with a smile. “Tacita,” he said coolly, halting her as she passed him.

“My Lord,” she purred. He could see the anger snapping in her eyes. His smile widened.

“The gold belt,” he said, naming his most recent gift to her. “Have it delivered to Cassius in my private bath.” Tacita clenched her fists and glared at him, unable to quite contain her rage. He turned and continued toward the atrium dismissing his former concubine with a gracefully negligent wave of his hand.

“Immediately, Tacita,” Laurentius Caesar’s voice rose above the murmurs of his entourage. He did not bother to look back and see if she obeyed him. Open disobedience was death. She knew this and would do as she was commanded. And it would gall her cheating and haughty heart tremendously. He laughed and those with him followed suit, hypocrites that they were.

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