Excerpt from EXSILIUM

Rome, September AD 392

[Lucius Apulius narrates. It’s dawn and he’s going to wish his friend and brother in arms, Gaius Mitelus, a good journey as Gaius goes off to join the rival emperor Eugenius’s forces.]

The Mitelus domus wasn’t far away, perched on the summit of the Mons Cispius, part of the Esquiline. The climb up the Cispius was steep and woke me up. That and the stink of donkey dung and the piles of rotting rubbish my servant’s torch lit up. At least at this time of day, or rather night, the smell of hundreds of thousands of people was less oppressive. I did catch the much more welcome smell from a bakery. A group of nightwatchmen were trudging in the opposite direction, probably in search of their beds. One of them glanced up and nodded at me, then went on his way.

When my servant knocked on the service door in the gate of Domus Mitela, the porter took his time answering. I thumped this time and a face with a bad-tempered expression appeared in the cross-barred window within the door.

‘What?’ he grumbled.

‘Open up, for Jupiter’s sake,’ I shouted. ‘It’s Lucius Apulius, senator of Rome, for Gaius Mitelus.’

The window slammed shut and the service door opened instantaneously, held by the porter bowing deeply.

‘I beg you to accept my apologies, your honour. We were not expecting visitors at this hour. It’s as chaotic as Tartarus in here.’

‘Yes, very well. Now is your master up yet?’

‘The Lady Maelia is about and—’

‘Who is the barbarian at our gate?’ Honorina’s voice cut through.

What in Hades was she doing up at this hour at her age, and dressed, as usual, like Juno herself?

‘Apulius! Why are you here? We’re far too busy for visitors,’ she said.

‘I’m fully aware of that, domina. I have come to say farewell to my friend before he enters the snake pit of the court at Lugdunum.’

‘Well described. I tried to dissuade him when he came to see me last night, but he is as stubborn as any Mitelus in history. You’ll find him in the kitchen annoying the staff.’

Thus dismissed, I made my way across the atrium to the back of the house. Gaius was not in the kitchen but the corridor, gulping something down from the cup in his hand in between talking animatedly to one of his Ligurians packing a pair of leather saddlebags. Both turned as my boots resounded on the marble floor. Even in the dim morning light assisted by the flame from the torch in a wall sconce, his face looked like a Greek actor’s with only half the make-up. The lower part was pale, almost white, from being hidden behind the beard now shaved off, the upper part burnt as if made from walnut, and with red-rimmed eyes set in the deep sockets.

‘Lucius! What in Mars’ name are you doing here?’

‘Coming to see you off on your idiot errand.’

‘Don’t you start. I had enough from Aunt Honorina. And Maelia’s been as cold as Tartarus.’

‘Are you absolutely sure you want to go? Eugenius is old school, but Arbogastes would sell his own son, mother and grandmother into slavery to keep in power.’

‘Eugenius isn’t as thick as people think.  As master of Valentinian’s correspondence, he was privy to everything and would have worked closely with Arbogastes. And he was declared emperor perfectly normally at Lugdunum.’

‘Normally? What is normal now?’

‘You know what I mean!’

‘Why didn’t you go straight there?’

‘Money, old friend.’ He grinned. ‘I’m going to have to pay my way past all the bureaucrats to reach Eugenius. Honorina blasted me in her usual way then handed over a generous purse of gold. I also needed my formal clothes and my army record.’

He looked so enthusiastic, almost as he was when we were eighteen-year-olds with our first military postings. But as he handed his cup to a waiting slave, I saw his face become serious. At that point, I knew that nothing I could say would dissuade him.

Honorina, leaning on her stick, and I watched as Gaius’s Ligurian adjusted the straps on the pack-mules a groom had brought round to the front. Gaius’s retainers always looked solemn and said little, but this man looked melancholic with deep lines scarring his face.

The street was relatively deserted except for a man with a handcart unloading sacks of grain at the baker’s down the street and two girls hurrying away in opposite directions with loaves under their arms. One shrieked as she almost tripped over a bundle of rags which moved as she approached. A beggar. Perhaps he was waiting for scraps from the baker.

I turned round at the sound of boots clacking on marble. Gaius emerged from the vestibule followed by Maelia at a slow pace. I smiled at her, but she didn’t return it. Gaius pulled me into a bear hug.

‘I bet you wish you were coming with me, Lucius, instead of being stuck with the prosy old senators.’ He grinned at me.

‘No, thank you. I know when I’m well off. And I couldn’t leave the girls. But tell me something… Where’s the other of your Ligurians?’

‘Ah.’ He took a deep breath in. ‘He’s buried in western Gaul.’

‘What happened?’

‘Nothing glorious, although we pretend he fell in defending our employer’s villa against robbers. He went out, got drunk and fell over the wall into the river.’ Gaius pulled a face, then he looked away, the expression on his face markedly darker.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. I know you were close.’

‘That’s how life goes. I try to cheer Ragutius up when he broods, but I think he’s looking for a way out. I keep a careful eye on him. They really were twins and he feels bereft.’

‘Then he’s lucky to have you for a master.’ I paused. ‘Gaius, be careful. Theodosius will see you as supporting a usurper. If Eugenius fails in his bid as Magnus Maximus did, he won’t be as merciful as after Poetovio. Maelia managed to get Marcellus Varus to sell her house so she could pay the fine for Silvanius’s part in Magnus’s bid. This time, Theodosius won’t spare you execution and the Miteli tribe ruin. Think about Honorina at her age, and Maelia and her children.’

‘Then I’d better be successful!’ He clapped me on the shoulder, kissed his aunt and sister on the cheek and then leapt on his horse and rode off into the dawn light. As the noise of the horses’ clip-clop faded, Maelia pulled her palla tighter round her body and said in a voice of utter despair:

‘Will I ever see my brother alive again?’

She turned into her aunt’s arms and wept.


Discover more about Lucius, Maelia (and her brother Gaius) and Lucius’s daughter Galla in EXSILIUM.

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Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is out on 27 February 2024.

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