Set in a world where the Roman Empire never left Britannia, the Dai and Julia Mysteries are a series of novellas about a crime-fighting couple. Dying to be friends explores their respective histories before they first met.
The boot would have caught him in the head. Dai rolled away as it swung in and he took it on the shoulder instead. But the rest of the pack were about to catch up and after the last experience of that, he knew he had two choices, surrender at once or hold on, count the moments and pray. The decision was taken from him as the whistle blew across the field. Which was just as well because he could not have taken much more punishment.
A hand reached down, attached to a brawny arm.
“Well done, you’re not bad at this are you?”
The mud smothered ball was clutched close into his body and Dai, still winded and bruised from the last assault, took the hand, grateful for anything that might help him back on his feet. A moment later he was reeling back on the ground, shoulder probably half-dislocated as his erstwhile helper was holding the ball aloft and making an earsplitting hooting noise.
Dai lay still, closed his eyes and let the world revolve around him for a few moments. The jubilant cheers and back-thumping slowly faded. It was not the first humiliation he had endured since he had started his career in the Vigiles and he was willing to bet it would not be the last. But at least it would be the last he had to endure on this training course.
This ‘team building’ event was meant to be a treat for the final day. A reward for all the hard brainwork they had been required to put in to qualify for the rank of Investigator. Random draw assigned the teams and they had spent the morning training. Dai had contemplated feigning gut cramps to escape the afternoon match and now he wished he had.
He became aware it was starting to rain. Britannia in the early spring tended to wet and the ground they had been playing on was already part mudslide. The drops were heavy and he decided he was not hurting quite so much any more and probably ought to get up.
“Spado!” He recognised the voice of his team captain and opened his eyes, pushing himself to his feet one knee at a time. A far cry from the players you saw on the sports channels. They would take all kinds of a kicking and just roll to their feet and jog off.
“You must be the most stupid cunnus I ever played in a team with. Giving the ball away to the other side – and that after the whistle.”
“The game was over and I thought -”
“You thought you’d fall for the oldest trick in the book? The rules are merda, Llewellyn – just like what you keep inside your skull. This is harpastum. The Game. They had the ball when the ref got his first view of it after the whistle.”
The anger and disgust on the other man’s face was so intense Dai found himself sinking into a defensive stance. He had no idea how to play harpastum, the messy brawls for glory had never appealed to him, he’d avoided it like the plague during his school years opting for other sports, running and swimming being the ones he favoured most, but he knew how to fight when he had to, that had always been on the sports syllabus in his life. The other man seemed not to notice, he had already turned away and was jogging back towards the building.
Wiping at a splotch of mud which was sliding over his eye, Dai realised he was only spreading more mud as his hand was coated too. In fact, there was not much of him that was not. He squelched back across the pitch, the rain picking up as he did so, and by the time he stepped into the changing rooms, the mud was cascading in rivulets on the floor behind him. He pushed open the door and the conversation dropped as the entire nineteen man team glowered at him.
Dai shook his head and walked past them, heading for the welcome warmth of the shower room. He might have lost the game, but of the five points they had made, two had been his and owed more to his running skill than anything else. The other three had been scored by their team captain, but then that was a man who had been in the under 20s finals at Augusta Treverorum six years ago as he had proudly boasted when putting himself forward for the role. They also seemed to have overlooked the fact that Dai had been the one clutching the ball and defending it with his body when the whistle went. Which, he had been told, was the way to ensure victory in this game. No one had bothered mentioning anything about after the whistle.
They were all gone when he emerged from the shower room, much to Dai’s relief. He had already seen the first purple marks revealed as the mud was washed away and he had a feeling that the following day he was going to be stiff and sore. Fortunately, the following day he would be heading home to attend his half-brother’s wedding and have a week in the fond bosom of his family before starting work as a junior Vigiles investigator for the submagistratus in his hometown of Viriconium.
He was towelling his hair dry and was wondering if he could afford a massage in the baths next door, when the door was flung open by one of the women who had been leading the training course.
“Llew –” She choked off halfway through his name, her mouth open and her eyes wide. Then a light flush of colour brushed her cheeks.
Dai dropped the towel from his shoulders to wrap it around his waist. Well what did she expect bursting into the men’s changing rooms? Romans who did not respect the privacy of non-citizens could expect to get an eyeful of six-pack and extras.
“Apologies, domina,” he said, reaching for his tunic.
“Eh – yes. Well, you were not answering your wristphone so I had to come and find you in person.”
“We were told to keep them turned off or silent.”
“Yes. So you were. So here I am.” She gave a little smile.
Under the cover of his tunic, he undid the towel and finished dressing, aware of her eyes on him and more than a little resentful of the fact she felt free to stare all she wanted. He realised then that he would be glad to be home, away from the coldly Roman Londinium and back in a place where the majority of people he met treated him like a human being.
“What was it you wanted, domina?” he asked, trying to keep the bite from his tone.
“The Prefect wishes to see you immediately.”
The Prefect? He was the man in charge of operations for the Vigiles. A fair few steps down from the Caesar of Gallia maybe, but about as close to that as Dai had ever got. He opened his mouth to ask why and she made a dismissive gesture “That means now, Llewellyn – and after, how would you like to be my guest at this evening’s graduation dinner? We can skip the boring speeches and head back to my place.” She smiled again as she finished speaking and Dai decided she was not at all bad looking for a Roman and very well preserved for her age, which had to be at least ten years over his own twenty-four years. For a moment he was tempted, very tempted. “It’s a sub aquila apartment,” she said, no doubt hoping to sway him with the promise of the Citizen only levels of luxury which that implied. Instead, it had the opposite effect and Dai found himself shaking his head and tasting a bitter flavour in his mouth.
“You honour me too much, domina,” he said, coldly. It was very obvious she was not used to being refused because her anger was instant.
“The Prefect’s office – now, Llewellyn.”
Then she went, slamming the door behind her.
Dying to be Friends is also to be found in The First Dai and Julia Omnibus by E.M. Swift-Hook and Jane Jago.