NEXUS - The first chapter...


‘I’ve lost him, Aurelia.’

Harry Carter’s voice was low, toneless, but I could hear the despair in his restrained British voice. Given the time of day, he must have been calling from his panelled office at the British Foreign Ministry.

‘Are you absolutely sure?’ I said. ‘He could just be on one of his walkabouts.’

‘His tutor at Cambridge said he hasn’t been in college for six weeks.’

Hades. What could I say? I stared at my yellow office wall and tried to compose a tactful answer.

At seventeen, Tom Carter had been a classical surly teenager. Harry had invited me to dinner one evening five years ago when I’d been posted to our London legation as political officer. It was a third level posting in the Roma Novan diplomatic hierarchy, but a restful one for me after a very fraught intelligence operation in Berlin. I’d taken to Harry immediately, not only for his connections as a senior spook – that was part of my job – but for his friendliness to a newcomer on the circuit and for his sense of uprightness.

Over an after-dinner brandy Harry had confided that his son Tom had been away for three days with no contact. During the evening, he’d kept looking at the hallway.

‘Do you want me to go, Harry?’ I’d said eventually.

‘No, please don’t. I’m probably fussing.’ He’d changed the subject, but fidgeted, glancing at his watch when he thought I wouldn’t notice.

‘He always comes back, usually broke. Young men, eh?’ He attempted to laugh.

Just as I stood to go ten minutes later, the sound of the front door opening echoed from the hall and Tom had shuffled in; dirty, dishevelled, eye sockets brown with exhaustion. He shrugged as his father hugged him, grunted and went upstairs without a word.

That was five years ago. I’d been home and then taken a posting in the Eastern United States since then. Now I was filling in here in London for our UK nuncia, our ambassador,who’d been taken ill.

‘Have you informed the civil police?’ I winced as I asked such an obvious question.

‘You know I can’t do that.’

‘Harry, it’s no shame. For a government functionary like you, they would be discreet.’

‘Don’t bet on it. One of those bloody tabloids would get hold of it if they paid enough.’

‘That’s a bit cynical.’ But he was right. Their press here in the UK was outrageous. But then so was the Sol Populiat home.

‘Can’t you use your people in your security service to get somebody to take a look?’



‘Completely off the record, Aurelia, I had two retired officers nose around, but they found nothing.’ He coughed. ‘Not a trace, which was odd. I can’t use anybody active. Imagine the stink if the parliamentary oversight committee got wind of it.’

I smiled at his schoolboy half-pun. But I knew he was desperately trying to cover his distress. Under that gruff exterior his heart was breaking.

‘Tom is an adult, Harry. You’re not responsible for him or his actions.’ That sounded so hollow. Harry loved his only child unconditionally. Since his wife Valerie had died, he’d lavished all his love on Tom. Almost too much. He’d kept Tom close as a child and not allowed him to fly on his own. He’d traipsed with him through northern hills on walking trips, taken him all over Europe in the school holidays, once even to Roma Nova. But the holidays were snatched in small gaps in Harry’s intense working life as he rose steadily in his government’s service.

Nothing had seemed to please Tom the times I’d seen him. Bent shoulders and floppy blond hair either side of a widow’s peak had framed a persistently unsmiling mouth. But once, and only that one time after we’d returned to Roma Nova after my first London posting when he came out to our farm at Castra Lucilla, did I see his nondescript face break out a smile. His eyes sparkled and he stood straight as he gripped the paddock fence following every move inside it.

Miklós, my companion, was lunging one of his ‘ventures’, a young, dark bay filly that oozed quality and was very obviously of Hungarian/thoroughbred cross-breeding: fine lines but with a hint of a stockier build and strength. English thoroughbreds were bred as lightweight speed machines; these potential ‘sport horses’, as Miklós called them, were more robust, with stamina for endurance, but grace for performance.

When I’d first given him management of the stud in Essex, Miklós had said he wanted to breed his Hungarian stallion, Batór, now retired to a life of fat-bellied ease at Castra Lucilla, with some of the thoroughbred mares in the hope of producing some quality animals as prospective sport horses – eventers, dressage, show jumping; that sort of thing.

I remember raising a sceptical eyebrow and asking, ‘Would such a venture be profitable?’

In my mind I saw again that cocksure glimmer sparkling in his eyes. ‘Quality unbroken youngstock can fetch a sizeable four-figure sum.’

At the end of the long lunge line, the young horse had been trotting in a wide circle around Miklós. He’d seen me leaning on the exercise arena’s rails with Harry and Tom and in his own crooning tongue had brought the horse to a walk and then a halt. Gathering up the long line, he’d brought her in to him, praising her all the while, rewarded her with a carrot which he’d fished from his jacket pocket and then led her over to me.

I’d looked up into his dark eyes. The sun filtering through his black curls and the knowing grin on his tanned face made me swallow hard.

‘Oh, hi,’ I recovered. ‘How’s it going?’

‘She’s enjoying her schooling,’ he said. ‘Soon we will introduce her to carrying a saddle, then start gently backing her – leaning over her first, then quietly sitting on her, getting her used to carrying weight and someone upright astride her. After that we’ll turn her away to grass for a few months to think about what she has learnt.’

And he had winked at me – a hidden meaning? WhatIhad learnt maybe? I felt the warmth creep up my neck. Gods, he was going to pay for that.

‘You remember Harry Carter from London from when I was posted there?’ I said in English, waving my fingers towards the father and son.

‘Of course.’ He nodded at Harry, then turned to Tom. ‘And who is this?’


For the next three days, Tom hardly left the saddle. When he did, he willingly set to cleaning tack, grooming and mucking out stables alongside Miklós. We had plenty of farmworkers, including stable hands, but Miklós insisted on looking after his own horses when we were at the farm. He said it was the best way to get to know them, to form a bond of partnership. ‘Get to know every hair and whisker on a horse, then things that go wrong will not be missed – cuts, lameness, colic – give a horse your all and he’ll give you twice, three times, as much back.’

‘I’ve never seen Tom so happy, Aurelia,’ Harry said as he and I sat on the veranda at the back of the farmhouse one evening and watched the man instructing the boy in the paddock. Miklós looked up and waved at me across the lawn. I raised my glass half full of our estate wine to him and smiled.

‘Leave Tom with us for a few weeks, or months if you want,’ I said. ‘I’m here in Roma Nova for a few months now, possibly a year, before my next posting abroad. We’ll be in the city some of the time and Miklós would keep an eye on him there as well. See it as a gap year.’

I smiled but he didn’t reciprocate.

‘Your husband is a caring man and I think he genuinely likes Tom, but I couldn’t possibly intrude on your life like that.’

I smiled at Harry’s calling Miklós my husband. He knew perfectly well we hadn’t married. Few Roma Novan women did. We didn’t need to as our names and property descended to our daughters whatever our social arrangements. But Harry was a very traditional British man.

‘I mean it, Harry,’ I said. ‘Miklós loves nothing better than somebody who shares his love of horses.’

‘Thank you, but no. Tom has his place at Cambridge in a few weeks’ time. I’ll buy him a horse in the meantime and perhaps you can rent me a place for it at your stud farm near there.’

That was then. Miklós had heard a year ago from the Thurswick Stud manager, Lambert, that Tom had turned up there occasionally, but most of the time the staff had exercised his horse. As soon as we’d arrived in the UK a few weeks ago for me to fill in for the nuncia, Miklós had driven up there. He discovered that Tom had instructed them to sell the horse; he’d pocketed the proceeds. I didn’t have the heart to mention it to Harry, but he must have known when the stabling bills stopped arriving in the post.

Miklós had thought Tom needed to be left on his own, to be away from Harry, but said he didn’t want to interfere between father and son. His own upbringing on the Hungarian Plains had been harsh with a father freer with a belt than with love.

Now back in the present, I tried to think what I could do for Harry.

‘Look, I’ll check with Miklós to see if Tom’s been in contact since we arrived. Miklós has been at the stud for a few days and he’ll be back there again next week. I haven’t heard anything, but I don’t poke around in Miklós’s affairs.’

‘That’s very kind, Aurelia. Really appreciated.’


‘Do I have to come as well?’ Miklós was sitting on the bed watching me while he towelled his hair. He’d arrived from Essex only twenty-five minutes ago after driving through terrible evening traffic. He’d stripped off his check shirt, moleskins and boots and dived straight in the shower.

‘No, of course not.’ I smiled at him. I was due at a cocktail party at the French Embassy in half an hour. Miklós would never be a diplomatic spouse, smiling at inanities and hiding his true feelings, and I would never demand that of him. He lived in the horse world where he’d become respected for his expertise from the king’s own trainer at the royal stud right down to the itinerant horse dealers who travelled round Britain and Ireland.

‘Just zip me up, though,’ I said. As his fingers tucked the tiny tab into the top of the seam to conceal it, his other hand rested on my shoulder. He bent down and kissed the nape of my neck. A warm tingle flowed down my spine. I wouldn’t be back late. I turned, laid my hand on his bare forearm and kissed him quickly on the lips. It would have to do. I bent and picked up my sequinned evening bag and slipped my compact and lipstick inside. The briefing note would wait until I was sitting in the back of the car.

‘Miklós, one thing before I go…’


‘Have you picked up any news of Tom Carter?’


Mais non, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur,I would be delighted!’

Oh, gods, I’d promised to host a families’ games day in our legation gardens. They were large enough, situated on the site of the old Roman castrabehind the seventeenth-century mansion nestling against the remains of the original London Wall. When the legation was being rebuilt after London’s Great Fire, the Roma Novan nunciaof the time had bought the plot next door. Astute woman! It had been covered in charred timbers and smoking stones for weeks according to the legation histories. Her actions had not only safeguarded two of the original third century towers then, but also prevented them being demolished, along with a lot of the wall, in the following century. Now in the mid 1970s, the London Corporation was falling over itself to preserve even the tiniest portion of wall as ‘heritage’. The irony of it.

‘Please call me Gustave, madame.’

‘Only if you call me Aurelia.’

His smile was so French; generous yet restrained. A charmer and knowing it, Gustave d’Egigny was nevertheless sharp-witted and, according to my head of station, extremely well connected in Napoleon’s imperial court as well as inside the French administration. Harry Carter said it was safest to treat him like a cross between delicate Sèvres china and an anaconda. He thought d’Egigny must have studied poker-playing to professional level when he was pursuing his master’s degree at the elite Paris business school. Perhaps so, but at the moment Gustave d’Egigny was putting out friendly diplomatic feelers.

‘Very well, Aurelia. That is agreed. My assistant will contact yours to arrange matters. Will you be able to show us some of your Roman life?’

‘Perhaps, Gustave, but we are very much a modern country.’

‘But, of course.’ He gave me a slight bow and left. I kept the smile on my face, but sighed inside. Everybody was still fascinated by the ancient Romans even fifteen hundred years on and thought we still went around in full segmented armour or togas. Well, I wasn’t going to force our people to dress up for a diplomatic community party, unless they particularly wanted to wear traditional dress.

‘How’s it going?’ A friendly, solid voice in this brittle web of insincerity.

‘Harry, I’m so pleased to see you.’

‘I saw d’Egigny was doing his charm act on you. Anything interesting?’

I laughed. ‘No, I’ve just agreed to host an event. But you’re right – he was making a particular effort to be nice. Don’t get me wrong, we have good relations with the French, these days but I don’t think they’ve really forgiven us yet for pressuring this emperor’s grandfather back across the Rhine.’

‘Ha! How the hell did you do that? I suppose it was Justina’s mother?’

‘You can’t expect me to gossip about the imperatrix of Roma Nova, Harry, but let’s say her Aunt Antonia was an extremely effective nunciain Paris with a persuasive manner.’

‘Which tells me nothing at all!’

‘Knowing people’s secrets is our currency in kind. It’s helped us survive all these years.’

‘Well, we all know your spies are the best.’

‘Spies?’ I raised my eyebrow in mock surprise.

‘Don’t kid me, woman.’ He grinned at me, then chuckled. I was so pleased to see him laugh. He calmed, then keeping his gaze straight ahead and nodding at the other guests as they circulated, he said, ‘I don’t suppose you have anything for me personally?’

I touched his forearm with my free hand.

‘Nothing, I’m afraid. Miklós is making a few enquiries.’

The expression on Harry’s face hardly changed, but a blink of pain in his eyes told me enough. I vowed that once this temporary assignment was finished, I’d take a few days’ leave and go and find this irritating young man. And I’d drag him back by his hair if necessary.


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Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, will be out on 12 September 2019.

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