Dying to be Roman by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook is a whodunit set in a modern day Britain where the Roman Empire still rules. If you missed previous episodes you can start reading from the beginning.
It was the last day of The Games and the Augusta Arena was packed to the rafters with punters come to witness the final Game of the season. Dai and Julia sat in a box high up in the stadium roof. He looked at her with some concern. She was still bruised and battered and, to his eyes, looked as fragile as a flower. He knew that he needed to tread carefully so he spoke in elaborately casual tones.
“I’m guessing it’s not The Game we are here for?”
“No. Although even that would be preferable.”
“This is where Marcella meets her end. She is to be quartered. And I very much doubt that she will be accorded Mercy first. The parents of her two Roman victims aren’t the forgiving sort.”
Dai watched a muscle work in Julia’s throat and grasped the hand that was pleating the sleeve of her shirt in both of his. A glint of silver from his index finger caught the sun as he did so.
“I find I don’t much care what happens to that evil woman,” he admitted, aware he was for once condoning what he normally condemned – brutal Roman justice. “I haven’t forgotten what she would have done to you. I will never forget it – or forgive it.”
Julia squeezed his fingers.
“Me neither. And I do want her dead. It’s just the method…”
Maybe she would have said more, but a fanfare of brassy trumpets cut her short. Below them a group of praetorians was dragging a naked and screaming figure to the centre of the arena. Behind the praetorians came four shaven-headed charioteers, each of whom led a yoked pair of stallions. The horses were hitched to the sobbing woman, one team to each ankle and one to each wrist. The praetorians stepped back and the stadium fell silent, with the only sounds being the increasingly despairing screams of the spreadeagled woman.
High upon the southern side of the terraces a figure in the imperial box stood up. The red kerchief in his hand could clearly be seen. He dropped the kerchief and the charioteers whipped up their horses. There was a dreadful wet tearing sound and Marcella was rent into four pieces. The stadium erupted as the horses dragged their gory trophies around the perimeter of the arena before galloping out via the stable entrance.
Dai glanced at Julia’s face, which looked as if it had been carved from ivory so still and fleshless was it. He squeezed her hand gently and she responded. The figure in the imperial box turned towards them and raised one fist. Julia stood up and bowed gravely across the arena. Dai could see her foster brother sitting in state next to Aurelius Galerius Valerius, Caesar of Galliae who stood in his salute to honour the justice done for Julia, while the crowd in the stadium howled and cheered.
Julia swayed on her feet, and Dai put out a hand to steady her but she was saved the embarrassment of falling by the deep-toned voice of a gong. She sat quickly, and Dai pushed her head down between her legs.
But it was too late, she started retching and all Dai could do was hold her head as she emptied her stomach.
Meanwhile, the arena filled with naked men. Men whose bodies were hard and scarred and tattooed. Men, each of whom stooped to put a thumb in the blood on the sand and imprint a bloody thumbprint on his own forehead. They resolved themselves into four teams, the finalists in this year’s Game, Caledonia with blue bands around each man’s left bicep, Germanica with green, Britannia Prima with red, and Iberia with yellow. Each team went to a corner of the stadium and stood in silence. This was what they would all have trained and fought for throughout most of their lives. This was their one chance and the grim faces all showed a determination that would brook no opposition. Here they each faced the possibility of maiming or death, but that was nothing when set against the precious prize of being lifted to the exalted status of Roman Citizen.
The gong sounded again and Caesar stood up in his box. This time he held a throwing stick in one hand and a golden ball in the other. As the gong ceased sounding Caesar placed the ball in the cup of the throwing stick and whipped it into the arena with vicious speed. A tall Iberian with a golden beard plucked the ball from the air.
And the pandemonium started.
Under the cover of the baying crowd, Dai wrung out his kerchief in water from his drinking bottle and used it to wipe Julia’s white face. She smiled her gratitude.
“I don’t think I want to be an inquisitor any more,” she whispered. “”I think I’d just like to retire to a little farm and grow olives.”
Dai looked at her and for a moment hesitated, his courage wavering, then he mustered a grin that he hoped seemed nonchalant.
“I can’t,” he said carefully, “offer you olives, but I happen to have recently come by a small orchard with apples, pears, plums and cherries that we could share if you wanted.”
Julia’s smile was so bright it all but dazzled him.
“I think I’d like that.”