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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28. The Rumble of Thunder

The sun was now low in the sky, casting a red glow. The few clouds that moved slowly overhead looked strangely foreboding to Nepos as he looked out from the balcony over the training sands. He sighed, wondering (not for the first time) what the messy affair with Paulus would ultimately cost him.

Had it cost too much already? He had seen no path to safety that did not draw blood, and though Etruscilla's anger had cooled into reluctant approval, he sensed in her a disappointed heart.

My marriage and what's left of my innocence- is that what I will lose to save my home?

At which point, would it have even been worth it?

There was a knock at the door and one of his servants attended to it. He overheard voices, including that of Praxites, and then came the soft footsteps.

When he heard Praxites breathing behind him, Nepos did not turn around. He did not want to look into the man's eyes.

"Is it done?" He asked solomnly.

"It is done Dominus. Paulus is dead, and I now hold in hand the documents that will save this house."

Nepos turned, noticed the parchment clutched in Praxites' grip. What powerful words did they contain?

"I have asked much of you Praxites, and you have more than prevailed. You have gratitude beyond measure. I shall arrange special visit for you to Lady Crispina's House for any indulgence you wish."

Praxites' eyes lit up at that particular idea. "I am pleased to have served you so well Dominus. You should know... I had assistance in gaining entry to Paulus villa. Nimr had not left the city- he was alerted by the scramble of guards and by chance found me. He provided distraction so I could slip unnoticed into the man's home."

Nepos took a moment to digest that. Trust the fool Nimr to have remained, placing himself in further danger. Still, there was much gratitude to be had there as well.

"Have you read documents?" Nepos asked softly.

"No Dominus. That honour should fall first to you." Praxites offered them out to him.

His hand shook slightly as he took them. For Nepos, this was it- the reason his grandfather was so hated by the Metellus family, the reason his father had been poisoned, and the reason they continued to seek his family's destruction, all bound up in old papers.

Taking a deep breath, Nepos started to read...

****

A short time later, he sat beside his wife upon their bed, a mixture of fury and pride spinning like a tornado in his stomach. This was a secret that had to be revealed.

"What shall you do now Titus?" Etruscilla asked quietly.

"I should seek audience with the Magistrate, and impartial senators, and men and women of business. These are words that many must see."

Etruscilla smiled weakly. "You will avenge your grandfather and your father, and do so via proper course."

Nepos met the sad look in his wife's eyes. "I wish it had been nothing but proper course. I..." A tear slipped down his cheek. "I fear I have let myself become like the very thing I wish to defeat."

Etruscilla ran her hand down his cheek. "No husband. The very fact that you are so anguished is proof enough that you are not like that. I will confess to concerns that you were too eager to indulge in bloodshed to achieve your goal. I see now that it has cost you."

He nodded. "I feel... stained. Yet I also see, after reading these words, that justice, not only for us but for so many, may finally be in reach. That will provide comfort enough."

"And I will be here to provide yet more if it is not." She leaned in, and kissed her husband.

****

The glow of several torches headed in determined direction across the city drew attention. Nimr, now on foot, could not help but notice they had stemmed from the Senate, and were moving in the general direction of Nepos and his ludus. Someone was moving against him- he had to get there, fast and first.

It was assumption on his part- perhaps the centurions who now marched in the direction of Nepos were in fact on a completely unrelated mission. To Nimr, after the events earlier in the day, it seemed unlikely to be coincidence.

Fortunately, the rigid march of the soldiers slowed their pace. They took to wider streets and strode with fearsome purpose; Nimr darted down one alleyway to the next, fully aware of faster routes to his destination and seizing every opportunity to use them.

His progress was swift, and it was not long before the familiar and welcoming sight of Nepos' home was in view. When Nimr cast a look behind him, the torches appeared dimmer, yet he knew they would be upon here soon. He would have to move quickly.

Nimr knocked at the doors fiercely, shouting Nepos' name.

Numerius opened the doors only to be nearly knocked over as Nimr charged in. He was panting slightly from his hurried arrival, and when Nepos and Etruscilla came running from their bedroom to greet the commotion they both stopped in their tracks.

"Nimr... what are you still doing here?" Etruscilla began. Nimr cut her off.

"Apologies Domina, but I bring grave news. Several centurions now march upon this house. I have seen them coming, and they will be here very soon. I do not know their intent, but I would expect it to be hostile."

Nepos exchanged a worried look with Etruscilla. "They must have been sent by Caius and Vibius. They suspect me of involvement in Paulus' death."

"It is perhaps worse than that my husband. They might suspect Paulus' deepest secrets are now in our hands."

"They cannot possibly..." Nepos started.

"They will have probably sent search parties to see what, if anything, was amiss at Paulus' home. They will know of the hidden compartment and they will already have suspected Paulus kept word of previous deeds. They do not have proof of involvement but suspicion is cause enough for men like them to act." Etruscilla's logic was sound- at any rate, the approach of soldiers was proof enough.

"Then we must leave, now. The Senate will listen to us, especially now we have proof of the Metellus family's corruption." Nepos raced to the bedroom to retrive the parchments. Nimr shared a nervous glance with Etruscilla.

"We should move quickly. I shall rally the other gladiators and the servants to leave." He said. Etruscilla nodded, and Nimr bolted away.

****

"I must again protest Senator." Captain Paetus remarked as the pair rode their horses toward the home of Nepos, their torches burning brightly as dusk turned to night. "I cannot guarantee your safety."

"I very much doubt Nepos will try anything foolish Captain." Replied Caius without so much as a glance in his direction. "He would merely ensure his death at your hand if he tried."

"Nevertheless, should this affair turn bloody, in the chaos he may strike out at any target."

"Captain, we have covered your objections. I shall hang back a little, but Marcus Paulus was a friend, and I wish to see his killer apprehended personally. Do not protest again." Caius' voice was firm.

"As you wish Senator." Replied Paetus. He wore his disapproval openly- yes, the risk was low, but there was risk, and it made no sense for Caius to expose himself to it.

Paetus began to rattle off the names of several centurions, having them ride ahead, to ensure that, in the event they were spotted, no one attempted to flee. He did not want to make a mess of things in front of the Senator.

****

The servants who had pledged their service to the House of Nepos were now given a choice. They could be freed, and leave before the centurions arrived, so as to lower the risk of their own arrest. Or they could stay, and help Etruscilla and Nepos slip away.

Much to Nepos' pride, they chose to stay, with the only exceptions being what remained of Nepos' new gladiator stock, who were allowed to leave.

One of them had the good grace to inform Nepos that the torches were a lot closer- the guards had increased their haste.

"We must go, now." Warned Nimr.

The assembled group of some fifteen people gathered what few supplies they could carry, and made for the doors...

****

"Surround the building!" Paetus roared. It appeared that the property only had one way in and out, but appearances could be deceiving.

His advance party were moving up the hill, toward the ludus when the main doors opened, giving way to several people carrying various items. Clearly Nepos had indeed become aware of the approaching centurions, and was now attempting to flee.

"Quickly, encircle them, do not allow anyone to escape!" Paetus screamed. His men moved faster, spreading out to provide better cover. The figures in the doorway looked out at the onrushing guards and hastily slammed the door shut.

****

The sight of the centurions, arriving quicker than expected, was a sombre one. The leaders had extinguished their torches to mask their approach, and it was a trick that had lulled Nepos and his companions into a false sense of security.

"We have to assume they are moving even now to entrap us." Etruscilla said. "We have no means of escape."

"No. We have but one." Everyone's eyes were drawn to Nepos. "We can use our voices. We can speak openly of the Metellus family's shameful past. We can demand we are given chance to present the documents to the Senate and the Magistrate, expose them once and for all."

"They will not believe us. It will be seen as a desperate gambit on part of desperate criminals." Replied Etruscilla.

"I will not surrender, not now. Not when we still have opportunity. We are not captives yet." There was steel in Nepos' voice. "Though perhaps, there is but one further course of action we can take. Nimr, I need you to..."

****

Paetus' horse marched up toward the doors of Nepos' home and the Captain dismounted in one swift, elegant sweep of his legs. Senator Caius held back, but still hardly far enough for the Captain's comfort. It was time for action.

"Master Titus Norbanus Nepos, by order of the Magistrate and the Guardia, you are placed under arrest! Remove yourself from home and submit to the authorities immediately."

A few moments passed. In the shadows Caius hoped Nepos would grant him excuse to use force. Paetus was about to call again, when the door slowly opened.

Out stepped Titus Nepos. He wore a simple white robe that could not possibly conceal any weapons, and his hands were empty of anything dangerous.

They did however, hold a roll of parchment.

"On what grounds do I face arrest?" Nepos called out. Paetus stepped forward.

"You are accused of being complicit in the murder of Marcus Octavius Paulus, found dead earlier today."

"What evidence do you have to support such allegation?" Nepos asked calmly.

Paetus eyed him curiously. "A former gladiator of this ludus, Nimr, was spotted near the scene, confessing to the crime."

Nepos spread his arms out. "A former gladiator, as you point out. I have no say or control over his actions. I believe he is now the property of Vibius Metellus- perhaps it is he who sanctioned Paulus' murder?"

"As you almost certainly know, Nimr escaped from Vibius ludus a few days ago, killing three guards in the act. It is highly doubtful he is working for Vibius."

Nepos offered a smile. "Yet somehow it is likely he works for me, when I have had no contact with him since selling him?" He shook his head. "You have speculation sir, not evidence."

Paetus could feel the eyes of Caius on his back. "There is yet more, but I am required to bring you before the Magistrate Office. Please, come with me."

Nepos made no move toward him. He still seemed oddly calm. "Tell me sir, where did these charges originate? Who gave you orders to come here, with so many centurions to apprehend one man?"

"That is not relevant..."

"Oh but it is." Nepos patted the parchment he held in his left hand. "I have recently learned a few... disturbing truths regarding a senator of this great empire. A man who, like his father before him, has sought to abuse position to bring suffering and misery to those he perceives as his enemies. In my hand I hold proof of these acts. It is... unusual timing, that I should acquire this information, and within hours a small army of centurions is at my doorstep."

Paetus had to resist the urge to glance behind him at Caius. His guards stood nervously, looking to him for guidance.

"You speak in cloaked tongue. Bring clarity to your words." Paetus ordered.

"This document details the acts of vengeance and petty cruelty ordered by Gnaeus Fundanius Metellus, the father of Senator Caius Metellus and ludus owner Vibius Metellus. Acts that include enslaving entire families over perceived slights, the illegal seizure of land from the hard-working, and selling children into servitude in mines and workhouses..."

"You lie!" Caius stepped forward, into the light of the centurions' torches, his face contorted with anger.

"No, I do not. The proof is right here, and very soon all of Rome will know it. I assume you are either Caius or Vibius- I do not really care either way. Both of you will soon be exposed for your own crimes. For years your father waged a private war against my family, and upon his passing you have taken up the mantle. My grandfather discovered your father's malicious actions when working for his house and fell afoul of his wrath, but when sentenced to death in the arena, he defied the Metellus family when he defeated his opponents in the arena and went on to become not only a feared gladiator, but ultimately a free man! His ludus grew into a respected one, and your father could not stand such insult. After his passing you continued his work; applying illegal taxation of my properties and gladiators, arranging my father's death..."

"Enough! I will not tolerate any more of your lies! You have clearly forged documents in desperate bid to escape charge of murder!" Caius was furious now. This little shit was undermining his family name! Worse yet, he did indeed have proof!

"Ah, but we both know I have forged nothing! Every work I speak is truth, and you seek to silence me, as you have others who have dared challenge your might! Well from this night, you will silence no one anymore!"

Unable to endure any more, Caius, normally so controlled, so composed- cracked. He snatched the torch from Paetus' grip and lunged for Nepos...

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