The Greatest Ludus

The Empire of Rome is at its height. The rich and powerful grow more powerful with each day. The corrupt grow more decadent and seek to avenge even the smallest of slights.

Young Titus Nepos, his beautiful wife Etruscilla and their trusted Doctore Nimr face a plot to crush their House by an unseen foe. They must unravel the history of Nepos' family and uncover a deadly secret, or face utter ruin.

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26. Good Men make Evil Choices

"Ha!" Marcus Octavius Paulus nearly snorted his morning kykeon out of his nose. The messenger had delivered most pleasing yet unexpected news and as he strolled through his villa his mind considered the implications. He also made a mental note to inform Vibius and Caius of this latest development.

How do I manipulate this to greatest advantage? He was sure he would find a way.

****

At the back of Lady Crispina's House was a small loading area for carts to deliver goods. The sun was rising and as it soared into the sky it cast it's warmth upon a white horse, that two men were currently loading with whatever a man could reasonably be expected to carry.

"Where will you go?" Ekwueme asked of Nimr, as they readied the horse.

Nimr looked up at the sky. "I do not know. I could seek to return to my homeland, though that is several weeks travel. I might take up residence in Gaul, or another territory where my face is not recognised."

"Do you think you will ever return?" Ekwu's eyes were filling up.

Nimr clasped Ekwu's face in his hands. "I cannot predict what the future holds. I fear it unlikely." He felt tears of his own welling up. "But it is not impossible."

"Then until such a time that it becomes impossible, I will wait for you my love." Ekwu took Nimr's hands in his own. "I will wait for you."

They shared a gentle embrace, for what felt like an eternity. Then slowly, quietly, Nimr climbed aboard his horse, kicked his heels, and rode off, toward the city gates, and freedom.

****

The guards who escorted Paulus toward Nepos' villa had already voiced their disapproval of him moving in the open when a dangerous man was still at large. Paulus had brushed aside their concerns; he like Captain Paetus, believed Nimr to have already fled the city. After all, what possible business could have held him from making escape?

Still, his guards had insisted upon being present and he was too eager to discuss Nepos' note to argue. Now, as they approached the villa, Paulus allowed himself a small smile.

How much more will Nepos indebt himself to me?

One of the guards knocked at the doors, to be welcomed by Numerius, who led them all to the main courtyard, where another servant waited with wine. She offered it to the guards but they declined; Paulus accepted, and cast leering eyes at the young woman, imagining her derobed upon his bed.

They waited but a few minutes before Nepos himself entered; he too declined the wine and ordered the serving girl away, much to Paulus' dismay.

"Young Master Nepos. I received  your message. I understand you wish to voice concerns about your new flock?" He walked around the courtyard, appreciated the well-tended gardens. Nepos followed, contrite despite being within his own home.

"I do. In their first taste of combat four of them fell, and two lost but to be spared by the mercy of the crowd. This has cost me considerable coin, which is most dissatisfying, as I understood I would be receiving gladiators of reasonable quality." There was a sour note to Nepos' voice.

"I can received assurances of my own that they were indeed competent. Not exceptional you understand, but capable. Naturally I am distressed to hear I may have been a part of dealings not entirely becoming."

"I wish to know if compensation, either in coin or in replacement gladiators, is a possibility." Nepos stated bluntly. "I would ask for Nimr back, but since he has almost certainly evaded capture and fled, I would seek other options."

"Hmm, you place me in difficult position. The man I sold Nimr to is most upset that the prize he parted with much coin to acquire has proven so troublesome. He has requested of me to seek further compensation from you."

Nepos stopped and looked Paulus squarely in the eyes. "That would be a most unreasonable request to grant. As soon as Nimr left my ludus he ceased to be my property- I hold no responsibility for any actions he has or will take after that point."

Paulus spread his arms in a concilitory gesture. "And I agree with you Master Nepos. It would be most unfair to expect you to pay in such circumstances, and your own grievance regarding the quality of your new gladiators is one that reflects upon me, so I have interest in seeing you aided in your plight. However, the man who purchased Nimr is a powerful man with powerful connections. He can and will wield much pressure."

Nepos sighed. "I cannot afford even greater expense at this time, and I will not do so when fault is not my own. I shall take this matter to the courts if I must, both matters."

"Do not act in haste Master Nepos! You would be challenging not only one of Rome's most affluent businessmen but a senator as well. Allow me to smooth the feathers of their discontent, whilst seeking recompense for you as well. This would spare all concerned parties much time and effort."

Nepos appeared to consider this for a moment. "Very well. I shall entrust my fate to you Master Paulus. More wine?" He reached for the bottle and offered it.

"Mmm, no, I have had one goblet-full already, and I can feel it blunting my senses. It would not be wise to have any more, however much I approve of it. I shall take my leave now Master Nepos. Be assured, I shall see to it your interests are taken care of."

"Thank you, Master Paulus. I appreciate you coming here and I appreciate your efforts." Nepos bowed his head. "Safe journey."

"Thank you."

****

One guard took the lead whilst the other two hung back just a little as Paulus began his walk home. The sun had peaked and was starting to descend, but was still bright as they made their way down the streets.

In the crowded alleyways and cobbled paths, Praxites was but another face that went unnoticed. He moved quickly and easily, behind one of the two trailing guards, slicing his dagger into the man's kidney and twisting.

A few moments later, the other trailing guard met the same fate. In the bustling chaos, they were not immediately noticed.

The third and final guard was going to be more difficult. He was lingering just ahead of Paulus, very much in the other man's line of sight and keeping a close eye on proceedings behind him. The crowds were helpful to Praxites but they would not be able to shield him from the guard's sight, nor from Paulus if he were to dispatch the guard.

So Praxites was patient. They were coming up on a quieter area of the city, where the alleys were long and winding, with yet more alleys leading off them. The perfect place for an ambush, if they took that route.

Luck was on Praxites' side. They did indeed dart into the alleyways, still unaware that the other two guards were no longer behind them. He skipped ahead, looking inconspicuous in his cloak; just another trader, going about his way. He slipped down one of the side alleys and waited.

Now it was time to spring his attack. The guard walked past. Praxites let him go.

Then Paulus came into view.

Praxites' fist shot out and caught the pompous Roman on the temple. He crumpled immediately, caught totally unawares.

The guard heard the thud and turned to see what had transpired- just as Praxites drove his dagger into the man's heart. The guard's eyes widened in shock and pain, then he fell to the floor, dead before he landed.

He had to move quickly. Praxites grabbed Paulus under the arms and dragged him into the side alley. From there, he kicked in one of the sewer covers, and very carefully, eased Paulus down as far as he could, whilst trying to get down the ladder himself.

It was not an easy thing considering Paulus' weight, but Praxites was strong and he got to the bottom without too much trouble. He took care to replace the sewer cover and started toward one of the archways.

****

The world came back into focus, slowly at first, then a little bit faster. Paulus tried to put together what had happened... a fist had struck out at him, his head felt like it exploded...

Now he found himself in the foul-smelling sewers! He tried to call out for help but his mouth was stuffed with cloth. He tried to move but realised he was bound by thick rope to an uncomfortable wooden chair.

He was also naked.

"Do not breathe a word once I remove gag, or it shall be your last." A threatening voice said from behind him. "Nod if you understand."

Paulus hesitated, then nodded. Was he in the company of bandits, thieves?

He saw a hand reach over and yank the cloth from his mouth. He could breathe properly again, and gulped down lungfuls of air, even if it was putrid.

A man in a hood stepped into view, toying with a dagger. Paulus did his best to remain composed, but fear was already mounting.

"My purse holds coin, take it! Take it and free me, please!"

He could see the man's mouth but not his eyes as the man smiled. It was not a pleasant sight.

"I am not seeking coin, though I may take it anyway. What I seek..." The man gently pressed the tip of the dagger against Paulus' forehead. "Is here."

Paulus was confused. "I... I don't understand."

The dagger was gratefully retracted, and the man paced around him. "You are Marcus Octavius Paulus, keeper of many secrets, secrets that could shatter Rome if used with hostile intent. I seek one such secret, that currently imprisons a good house of Rome."

"What are you talking about? Who are you?" Paulus craned his head to try and keep his kidnapper in view. The man stepped back in front of him.

"I am the man to whom you will spill words on subject of the House of Metellus and the House of Nepos, and why the Metellus brothers hold such hate for Nepos. You hold proof of why grudge exists, and you will tell me where to find it."

The menace in the man's tone frightened Paulus, yet his words gave him mild cause for hope. Despite the situation, a small laugh escaped his lips.

"If that is what you seek, then you and your master are fools. If I break words on subject, you will kill me, for you cannot allow me my freedom out of fear I will run to the Metellus brothers."

The dagger gleamed in the light of the torches. "Your death is inevitable. That is beyond doubt." The man smiled again, and Paulus' own vanished. "The question is whether you wish to die quickly, or slowly, and in great pain."

Paulus gave thought to screaming for help. Surely someone had to hear him?

"Now, shall we begin?" Asked the man. The tip of the dagger pressed downward- against Paulus' left testicle. Paulus gasped as pressure was exerted.

"P-please, I will.. aaaah!" The dagger pushed inward just slightly, slicing into skin. It twisted ever so slowly, and Paulus cried out in pain. Water began to well up in his eyes.

"There must be some arrangement where my life can be spared?" He pleaded. The man withdrew the dagger, and held it in the flame of the one of the torches.

"You spoke on the subject already. You confess you would seek to warn the Metellus brothers of what takes place here. Letting you live entails too much risk." The flames licked around the dagger.

"Please! I will perform any deed, pledge myself to the House of Nepos, I will do anything!"

The dagger was swept from the fire. It pointed at Paulus.

"You are not a trustworthy man! How many secrets do you hold for no other reason than to make others squirm for your pleasure?" The dagger was brought closer to Paulus' face. He could feel the heat radiating from it; it made him shudder with dread.

"Resign yourself to fate and seek to lessen the pain of your passing! Tell me what I want to know!"

The voice seemed to bellow. Paulus couldn't take his eyes off the dagger.

"I... I... in my home, in my bed chambers, there is a small, concealed vault, behind the bed itself. It contains the most potent secrets I possess. There is much to be gained from holding them."

The dagger remained poised. "And does this vault contain the key to the freedom of the House of Nepos?"

Paulus hesitated. If he answered that question it would hasten his end. He did not want to die... his fear was mounting. He started to whimper; he even pissed himself.

"Must we follow the path of pain?" The voice asked harshly. The hot dagger moved toward his eyes.

"Ah... I.... Y-yes, yes, the vault contains all the information you seek on the histories of the Metellus and Nepos families." Paulus let out a sigh. He was not prepared, not nearly prepared, but he knew what would come next. He prayed it would be quick.

"You have made correct choice. I shall keep my word and provide you with quick death. I would suggest closing your eyes."

Paulus could not keep the tears from falling. He hoped, even as he shut his eyes, that somehow, someone would discover him, save him.

He died carrying that hope, as the dagger sliced his throat.

 

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