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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29. The Crack of Lightening

"You will never triumph!" Caius screamed, swinging the burning torch at Nepos' face. The younger man ducked and Caius kicked out, catching Nepos in the thigh. They both stumbled and fell, and Caius snarled, scrambling to rip the parchment from Nepos' grip. Nepos tried to hold on but Caius slammed a fist down into his stomach and yanked the parchment free.

He scooped up the torch and held the parchment out. "You think you can undermine the most powerful family in Rome? You are a fool. Captain Paetus, when you finally complete your arrest of this man for murder, add charges of libel and treason as well." Caius thrust the parchment into the flames of the torch.

Nepos, strangely, did not look concerned. He got back to his feet, and even grinned.

"I shall submit to your authority Captain. Indeed, it might be for the best. The Metellus family shall soon be ruined, but in their fury may well seek revenge. Protection from such desires would be most welcome."

"What?! You speak in riddles! What do you fucking mean?" Caius was confused, and worried. The words that could have destroyed him were burning into ash, right before their eyes, how could Nepos possibly strike out when he had nothing?

Laughter came from Nepos' mouth. "You will find out soon enough."

Captain Paetus looked between the two men. For a young man Nepos seemed very assured. In contrast, Caius, normally so confident, was flustered.

"Titus Nepos, you will be escorted to the Magistrate." He stepped forward and took the young man by the arm. Nepos offered no resistance.

Caius could not hide his worry.

****

The stench of the sewers was making Etruscilla feel ill. Somehow, Nimr and Praxites did not seem affected by the odour, and nor for that matter did the other gladiators. Servilla and Numerius had already stopped to vomit once each, and Etruscilla herself felt her stomach heaving as they walked.

There was however, no other choice. The lower levels of the ludus, where gladiators slept, had provided entry to the network of sewers under the city and a means of quiet escape that no one would normally consider. They still had to find a safe exit- and Etruscilla hoped one would be found soon.

Despite her nausea, fear was the greatest reason for her nerves. Her husband was alone, facing the centurions by himself, and she had no way of knowing whether he was alive or dead. He had certainly been bold, daring to confront them by himself, and by lending such loud voice to the Metellus' crimes, he had taken a grave risk. It was perhaps, a risk too far.

Yet, even if he fell, his own family would surely rise, or at least halt descent. Etruscilla would see to that.

"We approach exit- the ladder above us leads us out." Nimr said in hushed tones. "I shall see if path is clear."

He swiftly assailed the ladder, and pushed open the cover. After a few moments he climbed up and gestured for the others to follow.

One by one they climbed out of the foul sewers, gulping lungfuls of beautiful clean air. Almost immediately Etruscilla felt her stomach settle a little. Gratitude was too small a word to describe how she felt for escaping that horrid smell.

"Aaaah... Thank the gods..." She heard Servilla mutter, and she smiled.

"Thank them indeed." She replied.

Nimr approached them. "We must move. Let us head for the Senate."

"Agreed." Etruscilla cast her eyes around, getting her bearings. The streets were empty and they were on the edge of a wide market square. It appeared vaguely familiar... if they took to the east...

"Follow me." She began to walk, leading the troupe of gladiators and servants.

****

Whilst the guards escorted Nepos toward the Magistrate building, Caius, with Publius in tow, made his way toward the ludus of his brother. He could not shake grave concerns regarding Nepos' apparent lack of worry, and felt he was missing something. Words with his brother would hopefully ease his fears.

The night was still. In his mind, there was nothing that immediately stuck out as troublesome. Why was Nepos so irritatingly calm?

As they neared the doors to Vibius' home, there was still nothing of concern.

Vibius had not looked too pleased to be disturbed at such a late hour. His disgust at the late visit was made all too apparent when Caius entered the living area; Vibius had been entertaining- two young women, wearing nothing save for collars, where busy pressing their naked frames against one another, locking lips and moaning sensually. Vibius commanded them to be gone and turned angry eyes upon his brother.

"To what is the meaning of this poorly-timed visit?" He snapped.

"Titus Nepos is in custody." Replied Caius.

Vibius gave him a perplexed and annoyed look. "And? Is this not good news, news that could have waited until morning?"

"He was not at all unnerved to be captured! He was smiling as he was led away Vibius. Smiling."

Now Vibius looked even more confused.

"Why would that be? With him held in chains there is nothing he can do to stop us. He will be ruined and that will be the end of it!"

"I know brother." Said Caius softly. "But I cannot shake feeling that something is amiss."

Vibius nodded. "Did you retrieve the secrets Paulus held?"

"Burned, in front of Nepos. Destroyed once and for all." Replied Caius.

"Then our legacy is safe and our victory complete. Nepos has nothing." Vibius tried to muster confidence, though Caius' words had shaken him.

"I hope so Vibius. I hope so."

****

The cell that Nepos was unceremoniously shoved into was cold, dank and dirty. Straw and hay was nestled in the corner and the cold stone bed was far from inviting. As the barred door was slammed shut Nepos felt a shudder. Whilst he had been confident of his plot succeeding, now, trapped within the cell, he was no longer sure.

Captain Paetus was staring at him from behind the bars. It was a curious, unsettling look.

"You spoke strongly of misdemeanors tonight. You lacked worry or fear of capture. Why?"

Nepos glanced up at the captain. "I cannot reveal that to someone I cannot be certain of trusting."

"I am sworn to uphold law and order. "I would also like to consider myself an honourable man. You have clearly plan to aid your struggle."

"Many men claim to be honourable. This does mean they are." Nepos said firmly.

"You doubt my integrity?" Paetus voice was full of quiet danger.

"I do not know you. You might well be trustworthy. I cannot take chance."

The Captain was silent for a moment. He looked... pensive. Then, wordlessly, he turned and walked away.

****

It was unlikely the Senate offices would be open, but not impossible, given the never-ceasing work of the bureaucracy. Etruscilla and her group approached the outside of the magnificent structure, marching toward the main entrance with purpose.

Guards stood watch and they eyed her with suspicion. It was a motley assembly and they didn't look at all like people worth permitting entry to the Senate.

A fight was not advisable. Etruscilla turned, a hand raised to bid the others to stop. Nimr in particular did not look impressed, but nodded. They hung back, as Etruscilla approached the guards.

"I bring important word to the Senate, regarding the actions of Senator Caius Metellus and his kin. These are words the Senate must hear."

"The hour is late and few senators remain present to hear words. They will not wish to be disturbed." One of the guards said.

"Inform them that one of their own has been complicit in acts of illegal taxation, immoral enslavement, and murder. They will be most eager to hear my words."

The guards exchanged a look, then one of them nodded and went inside.

After a few minutes the guard returned, and ushered Etruscilla inside.

The lavish halls of the Senate were furnished with many busts of famous Romans, and everything was draped with royal blue curtains, gold-trimmed and elegant. Several golden eagles were mounted upon pillars- a symbol of Rome's great strength. Torches burned brightly as the guard escorted Etruscilla toward the office of one particular senator- Spurius Gracchus Rufus.

The name was familiar to all of Rome. His family's legacy was a rich one. From senators to generals, the Rufus family had been involved in more historic conflicts than anyone else. When Etruscilla saw his name carved upon the door, her eyes widened.

If there was one man who could challenge the might of the Metellus family, it was him.

The guard rapped at the door and an old, raspy voice, granted them entry.

The man seated behind the desk was frail in appearance. His eyes were somewhat sunken and his face gaunt. What remained of his hair was grey, but the eyes- dark blue- appeared as sharp as ever.

"Please, be seated." He asked, and Etruscilla was hardly going to ignore the request of such a great man. She slid into the offered seat, hoping she did not reek too much of the sewers.

"I understand you bring news of the most disturbing order."

"I do Senator..." She reached into her robes, pulling out a roll of parchment. "The words contained within are ones the whole of Rome must hear." She passed over the document, which Rufus took gently.

He seemed so kindly. So soft, and fragile. So completely unlike his reputation. The look of dismay and shock upon his face as he read the document made Etruscilla feel guilty, for upsetting such a man.

It took some time for Rufus to read. She let him read in silence- it was easier for him to focus that way.

When finished, he set the parchment down upon his desk, and held his hands together for a moment, deep in thought. When he spoke, it was calm, measured.

"I had hoped to discover your document was a forgery. However, I knew the older Metellus. I recognise his penmanship. There is no question- these words are his." Rufus stood, and faced his collection of busts. "I had cause to suspect the man was not as noble as he would have me believe, but I did not want to believe a man I called friend could be so... cruel. I cannot doubt that now."

"What will you do?" Etruscilla asked after a moment.

"I will present full facts before the entire Senate chamber in the morning. It will be most unpleasant, but the truth... it must be heard."

"Thank you sir. My husband and I are in your debt."

"Do not thank me just yet my dear." Rufus turned his sad eyes upon her. "Once this news becomes public knowledge, the shame it will bring to the Metellus line will be great. They will, if this parchment is anything to go by, seek revenge. There may be difficult times ahead for you and your husband."

"We are prepared for the consequences." She replied firmly.

"Are you now? Are you prepared for assasins to come for you in the dead of night? Or for the Metellus family to whip up a storm of hatred against your family? I cannot guarantee how blunted their weapons will be by these revelations."

"I understand, but we cannot let them win, not now. If we scurry and run from the city like cowards then all we have risked to bring these words to you is for nothing, even if they are locked away." She was resolute, something Rufus took note of.

"I can see you are a brave woman Etruscilla. I sense your husband is like-minded. It is against my better judgement to suggest you remain in the city, but I can see such arguments will be wasted."

Etruscilla smiled. "My husband learned some time ago, that arguing with me is futile. Speaking of my husband... I do not know his fate. The Guardia were about to arrest him when I escaped from our home. If possible, could word be dispatched to the Magistrate, to perhaps procure his release?"

"I shall see to it my lady." Rufus smiled. "Then perhaps, the two of you would be interested in joining me in the Senate Chamber for disclosure of your news?"

****

The night in the cell was an unpleasant one. Rats twice found their way in, and took cheeky nips at Nepos' ankles and feet. In the end he had given up on sleep, and felt incredibly weary, especially after the events of the previous night.

Other captives were starting to rouse as the sun rose and its light pierced the gloom of the cells. Many of them began chanting and singing- and the language was certainly colourful. Many of them clearly felt they were wrongfully arrested and had no qualms about sharing their feelings with the world.

The guards threatened to impale the captives with their swords- a move that brought a measure of quiet. Still, some continued to indulge themselves. Nepos declined to join in.

After what felt like a considerable length of time, Captain Paetus stepped into view. Wordlessly he unlocked the door to the cage, and stared at him intently as he opened it.

"I have orders from the Senate. You are to be freed, and escorted to the Senate Chambers. You are in someone's favour, it would seem."

Nepos rose. "So it would seem. Apologies Captain, if I was curt with you last night. You will appreciate that recent events have been... stressful."

"Apology accepted. I trust you will not be forthcoming with the reason behind recent events?" Asked Paetus as Nepos stepped out of the cell.

"For the moment, the fewer ears hear reason, the fewer are exposed to jeopordy. I am certain the entire city shall shortly hear reason."

****

Caius awoke slowly, and gazed at his wife. His dream- a beautiful tale of the fall of the House of Nepos- had been rudely stopped short of glorious end by a hammering at his door. Angered that someone could have the impertinance to be so insistent with a senator, he flung on a robe and was ready to rebuke whoever was behind it- until one of his servants, a young woman whose name he forgot, came rushing toward him, eyes full of fear.

"Dominus, centurions are here, requesting you accompany them to the Senate for an extrodinary session. They are most insistent that you leave immediately."

Caius was stunned that the Senate felt the need to summon him in such a manner. It simply wasn't done, not to him.

"Send messenger to my brother. I suspect this will concern him as well- have him meet me there."

"Yes Dominus." She hurried off, to attend to his request.

****

The great Senate Chamber filled with senators from all areas of the city. Men and women of position and honour, dressed in exquiste white robes that appeared to be made of pure silk, took their places upon the steps as they waited for the session to begin.

Caius took his place, glancing back at his brother, Vibius, who stood within the viewing gallery.

From the offices, in strode Spurius Gracchus Rufus. Behind him, much to the shock and anger of Caius, followed Etruscilla- and Nepos himself.

Rufus took to the centre of the Chamber, holding his hands up to bid for quiet. The murmur of the crowd abated. Caius felt the hairs upon his neck rise and his mind raced.

"Good senators, I have called you here today for a reason of grave importance, covering many decades. One of our own, a man whom some of us called friend, has, to my horror, been involved in damaging the reputation of this establishment. His abuses of power are varied and many, and they pain me, personally."

Sunlight was pouring in through the open portals, and the room was warm from so many bodies, but that was not the reason Caius was sweating. There was no way, surely...

"Gnaeus Fundanius Metellus, a man whom I respected, has been involved in many illegal and immoral acts that defied his role as a senator. I have here..." Rufus pulled out a roll of parchment and Caius blanched, his brother Vibius likewise turning white. "proof of many misdeeds that shame this chamber. He, sadly, conspired to bring down houses and people who he felt had slighted him in some way, or who potentially threatened his personal interests. I will not list every crime here, for that would take far too long, I will however summarise. He proudly noted involvement in kidnapping, in the selling of Roman citizens, including children, into slavery having illegally rendered them destitute, he was complicit in destroying properties of his perceived enemies so that he could buy their land cheaply... and he tried to have Mamercus Norbanus Nepos, the grandfather of Titus Norbanus Nepos, executed in the arena for daring to reveal these crimes."

Caius felt the eyes of the Senate turn in his direction, and suddenly he felt very cold.

"Since Mamercus did not have the grace to die in the arena, and instead forged his own place in the pathos of arena legends, as Gnaeus grew old, he waged a secret campaign to destroy Mamercus. He documented efforts to see to it Mamercus could only procure weak stock, or that he would face harsher taxes. These efforts failed, and so he ordered his sons to carry on his work. Before he died, Gnaeus continued to keep meticulus records of his sons' activities, detailing their own efforts to undermine the House of Nepos. Activities that included the murder of Titus' father."

There was no sound- no one dared breathe a word. The allegations were damming. Caius wanted the earth to swallow him up, but he could not let such words stand without challenge...

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