Circa 129 BCE

I watched as the young man left the patio, his olive skin rippling over smooth muscles, his body alive with energy that can only be captured by youth in full bloom.

“He’s beautiful,” I offered, then stifled a laugh as I saw Marieko’s spine stiffen. “There are things I could teach him… but you already know that, yes?”

The old Greek turned to face me as I reclined on my left side and snatched another pear slice from the tray before me. His face was unreadable, a skill he thought he had perfected years ago, but had been forced to re-learn since Rufus brought me to this place. It was his only defense against me.

“My grandson is none of your concern, Felicitas,” he growled at me, and this time I did laugh, but quietly.

“I like you, old man. Why do you rebuff me?”

“It is none of my concern, what you like or dislike. Rufus would be displeased should you kill me?that is likely all that stays your hand.”

“Not at all! True, Rufus holds you in very high regard, so were I inclined to still your breath I would refrain for his happiness’ sake. But I do like you. I always have.”

He made a sour face, but decided to end the conversation when he heard Salia’s bare feet happily racing up the stone steps to the patio. The little girl, all of seven years old, squealed in joy as her grandfather turned and swept her from her feet, lifting her high above his head before drawing her to his chest in a firm embrace. It caught at me, that simple act?that such a dour and suspicious man could in an instant become a doting grandfather merely from the spell of a child’s love. Though I had seen such things countless times, and had long come to accept that such things were always to be denied me, it brought home just how alien I still felt here among the Romans.

Rufus had taken me from my land and my people. After doing so, he journeyed with me across the frontier of his mighty Republic into Spain. That in itself had been a humbling journey, as I saw the power and industriousness of these people he called his own. But still it failed to prepare me for what followed when we took ship from that land and made our way to his home in Arretium. It took all my skill at deception to hide from him the awe and wonder I felt at the works of the Romans.

Though to modern eyes the towns we traveled through would probably seem small, to me they were immense. Yet Rufus assured me what I had seen was nothing compared to the sheer size and grandeur of Rome herself. Even their roads?I knew paths and trails, the well-worn routes between villages, but nothing like these solid brick passageways, these straight and level conveyances upon which their carts and wagons traveled as we made our way toward the center of what Rufus called their “great republic.”

It was dizzying and confusing to see one city, then another, then more and more, and to understand that though these were disparate peoples they shared a common allegiance to “Rome,” either by choice or by circumstance. But it was also the thought of the labor required to make these roads and cities, as well as their fine clothing and their beautiful and deadly armor and weapons of bronze and iron, that impressed me so. How could any chieftain or king hope to rule them all, or muster all the energy and materials and organization to not just create all these things but to actually make them commonplace? When I asked what King had begun all this, Rufus surprised me with the forcefulness of his answer.

“Only barbarians allow kings to rule them! Rome has no king!” He practically spat the words out. But then his visage softened, and he smiled. “Ah, but you are a barbarian still,” he said, grinning warmly and embracing me briefly as if to apologize.

As we traveled he would describe to me the way the Romans were governed: by a huge council of men, Senators, who were overseen by men called Consuls who seemed somewhat king-like but could serve for only one year and had to share power on alternate days with another Consul. All were defended by an army of “citizens” and organized by “equestrians” and “centurions.” But at a deeper level, written laws that all agreed upon and recognized governed their actions. According to Rufus, these were laws that even their greatest men, even the Consuls themselves, would prostrate themselves before. No one man, no matter how mighty or prosperous, could risk defying these laws, or what he called “the law,” without punishment.

How did it come to pass that they all agreed to these same laws? Rufus said they were first written by Senators long dead, and added to and modified by current Senators, then read to an assembly of all citizens who would vote: would they accept it or would they not? It was difficult for me to grasp and dizzyingly complicated, for I had always lived among men ruled by a chieftains whose word was law when tradition had no answer. Sometimes there would be an allegiance to a greater chief or even a king, but for Rufus and the other Romans this was an offensive thought. To them the law had solidity; an unbreakable certainty far greater than any king could ever create. I did not quite fathom it, but pretended to understand. In any case I accepted it: most things among the Romans were so because “the law” or “the Roman way” made them so, and for no other reason, not even the invocation of any particular gods. Though it infuriated me at times, I felt small and insignificant in the presence of such power, for it had clearly made them a mighty and fabulously wealthy people.

After several months among them, living in Rufus’ villa in Arretium, my sense of wonder for the Romans had eased somewhat. I found the people I met to be people still. They had unusual ways and their law ruled great expanses, but taken individually they were almost as simple to fathom as any other humans. It was only their politics, and Rufus’s maneuverings within that sphere of power, that left me utterly baffled. He would describe to me his plans for ascension to the Senate, then even to Consul, but the terms and assumptions were outside my knowledge. I would feign understanding, but I suspect Rufus was aware of my confusion.

Rufus would often have me at hand when visitors called, displaying me like some trophy. It irritated me and yet amused me as well. Early on Rufus told me that my name Tiwazō sounded barbaric to Roman ears, and named me “Felicitas” to his people. He called me simply “Felicia” in the quiet of our bed at night. He said that it meant “good fortune.” This rankled me only slightly, as it annoyed me to have others view me as his slave. Yet I had worn many names in my long existence, and “Felicia” had a lovely and exotic sound. My old people might know me by one name, and the Romans might know me by another, just as the Greeks knew Diana by the name of Artemis.

The city of Arretium dazzled me, for it was larger than any town we had traveled through before. The brick streets ran between buildings that were usually made of Roman bricks but sometimes made entirely of stone. The buildings were cut in square and rectangular patterns, with columns supporting the immense curved-tile roofs. Beautiful mosaics and lifelike painted statues abounded, and the smells were often overpoweringly exotic. The Romans ate more salted fish than anyone I had ever encountered, and they loved their oils. Indeed it seemed that when they were not putting oil into their food, they would smear their bodies and hair with it, then scrape it off in order to cleanse themselves. The entire city of Arretium seemed to smell of salt, fish, and olive oil.

Rufus’ own villa within the city of Arretium was most impressive. It was made entirely of stone, with beautiful mosaics on some of its walls both outside and in. Its stone-tiled floors covered the entire domicile, with nary a sight of the earth underneath. The rooms included quarters for his dozens of slaves and servants, a kitchen with an impressively large stone hearth, an open-air atrium and garden in the center of it all, and several bedrooms each with its own fireplace. One bedroom was set aside especially for his wife, although Rufus assured me that she never even visited here and would likely never use the room. But all viewed that room as sacrosanct. She herself resided in a supposedly even grander home with others of his family in the city of Rome itself. It was hard to imagine a home more huge and clean and beautiful than this one, yet he assured me that this was not only so, but that his family’s means were meager compared to the most powerful families in Rome.

Our lovemaking was energetic and exhausting, and it amused me that he often referred to me as his “virgin” even as he merrily had his way with me and I with him. The Romans considered any woman who had never borne a child to be a virgin?how utterly amusing a thought for one such as I! It also flattered my ego, for the Romans believed that a woman who would not conceive (“would not”?Rufus’ own phrase!) was either flawed like a whore, or even more magically powerful than other women. In the quiet of our room at night, Rufus painted this as the ultimate proof of my relation to the goddess Diana, herself an eternal virgin, for surely one so powerful as I could hardly be lowly. He told me I should become Queen of a group called the Vestals, that he wanted ultimately to become one among the gods such as myself. He wished to make me first among the Roman goddesses?and assured me that he would make it so.

How could I doubt him? He was so utterly certain, and he had already shown me he could do far more than any man I had ever met.

As impressive as this all was, however, it rendered me even more difficult for Rufus to handle, for I was both his slave and a goddess at once. I also had a habit of questioning him incessantly on things he considered settled or that I should already understand. But he could never stay irritated with me for long, and would usually laugh and hug me and say, “Just accept it, my beautiful barbarian.”

Yes. I was not immune to flattery. To this day I still am not, I confess. It is one of my many failings.

“You are my beautiful, beautiful Felicia, my virgin goddess and my soul,” he often said to me during and after our nightly lovemaking. “With you at my side I know I can accomplish things greater than any man has ever dreamed.”

I believed him. For I so very much wanted to believe him.

So there I found myself with Rufus in his incredible home in Arretium. All there called me Felicitas, and I was considered his most favored and beloved slave. Neither Rufus nor I spoke of how I was a God, not to anyone. I still chafed a little at this, for while I had been a slave many times before, I felt I had left that part of myself far behind. When I felt the instincts of one returning to me, I felt repulsed, yet sometimes allowed myself to go through the motions?if only to help further his plans. It was sometimes difficult, yet sometimes seductively easy, for this was different from other forms of slavery. Now I had a master who viewed me as an equal.

I do not know that I can describe to modern ears why this bothered me in some ways but flattered my ego in others. Still, Rufus would often beat his slaves for failure; he felt it necessary to maintain discipline, as did most Romans. I even once saw him cut the tongue out of a young male slave who dared to speak to me crossly. But he always treated me as his most favored and valued of properties, and would tolerate no rudeness toward me from any of his other slaves (save one), nor from any other member of his household.

Rufus was, in most ways, more powerful than any man I had ever encountered. He was also so very beautiful in form and grace, with nut-brown skin and searing, onyx-black eyes, hair like black wool, and a form as hard as it was fluid. His short stature held an incredible energy and self-assurance, and an occasionally self-deprecating manner (in his privacy with me, if not before others) that was intoxicating. While he had a wife, in his eyes I was first among his women. He was shorter than me in a way I sometimes found comical, but somehow his short stature only accentuated the resonant power within him. He sometimes drew a small chuckle from me, yet I never forgot that he had been able to humble me in a way that no man had in centuries?and that I would have instantly killed any other man or woman for trying. While I was not sure I loved him, he surely loved me?and he saw me as the key to his own ascension to power and immortality. It was an alluring dream, and one that flattered my ego all the more.

Rufus told me many times I could walk away whenever I wished. Yet he thought he would be nothing without me. Though of course he did not speak this aloud to anyone but me, it was clear that all who served him knew his regard for me. Indeed, all but one of his many manservants and maidservants deferred to me in even the smallest of areas.

Marieko was the perennial exception. When he could not otherwise avoid me, he made it clear in both his manner and posture that he dissented, and that he thought very little of his master’s decision to elevate me to such a high position in the household. Yet somehow this never offended me. In some strange way it endeared him to me. And there was always my demon-lover Rufus to flatter my ego, after all.

“My beloved Felicia?my lovely Felicitas! In our nights together as man and woman in my own bed, do you not know what it portends? For I take you, but in so many ways you take me, while the gods look upon us and favor us. Divine destiny must have set us together, and surely it all promises that you and I shall be together forever!”

Forever. He used the word “forever” constantly while we were alone. He did not want his other servants or friends to hear it, but he believed that with me by his side he would be able to live forever, and that the two of us would come to rule the entire Roman world with might and justice and wisdom. I cannot describe it fully, for it was intoxicating. But he was a man who had bested me, and then shown me that he thought himself less than me, that he wished to join me. He believed that with me he too would live forever.

In response I did little but smile, sometimes a bit giddily. I was hoping beyond hope, believing beyond reason, that he was correct. In any case, for now I would be his Felicitas, and began to understand myself to be his helpmate. To modern eyes this must seem so very primitive. Yet I gradually began to see myself as just that. Indeed, our conversations on the matter became more passing strange with time, not less. Every night we would pray certain rituals of his making to the gods. And once every week, at night and in private, I would open the veins of my forearm to fill a cup with my blood that he might partake of it in his pursuit of immortality and godhood.

I accepted all this, as I accepted so many things from him. But after our several months like this, something began to irritate me. It began as a small notion, but quickly grew into suspicion, then anger. I had been intrigued by the power of scrolls since I first saw Rufus use one. There were runes, varied and intricate beyond any I had ever known, and they were carried upon these scrolls. Rufus would study them and pronounce the runes had “told” him this or that story or fact. Sometimes he would create small sets of runes upon thin squares of pressed wood and send them off to some person, only to receive them back, claiming this person had now spoken to him as if he were present in the very room.

“Ah, Lucius says there shall be a feast on the first of next month at the governor’s estate,” or “Martinus says all is well at the tax office.”

I would strive to hear voices, but it quickly became clear to me that the runes themselves conveyed the meaning. Rufus would leave scrolls about his room for he often ruminated upon them and he seemed unconcerned when I might take one up and examine it. My ability to read humans, to see the workings of their minds, was and is strong. Yet while I could see no guile in him toward me, I began to wonder had he found some way to counter my own ability to understand the thoughts behind his eyes. My pride would not allow me to ask the meaning of these things?instead I grew angrier and more resentful until I convinced myself he sought deliberately to keep understanding of these things from me.

It came to a crisis without warning one evening almost nine months after our arrival together in Arretium. We had taken our meal in his bedroom, an oddity he was known for amongst his servants. By happenstance, it made our mutual prayers and rituals to the Roman gods easier to keep out of sight. Every night we always followed a precise ritual: first our meal, then lovemaking, then certain chants and small sacrifices to Jupiter, Pluto, and Diana. Once a week he would also drink of my blood, and this was to be one of those nights. I had not understood that I would take issue with him this night, but after our meal, as we moved to his bed, my anger was suddenly fierce in me, though I gave no outward sign of it.

Rufus reached for me and I let him draw me towards him across the bed even as I rolled out of the soft wrap I wore, then slid my naked body up along his until our mouths met and we kissed. His powerful arms encircled my waist, pulling me to him, his body like a granite statue beneath me as I felt his manhood stiffen against my thigh. Our lips parted and I bit playfully at his nose, rolling with him as he urged me over onto my back, then his face moved, his mouth sliding down my neck before nuzzling into my breasts. I gave a soft cry of encouragement and Rufus’ hands moved, sliding up and down my body with firm assurance, delving between my thighs while I reached down to grip his member, encouraging him to move up further. Then, as he pressed me back, easing between my open thighs, he lifted himself up, looking to my face.

I slowly slid my free hand between us, tracing my fingers up his breastbone until I reached the point where his neck began. Two fingers suddenly turned hard and pressed forcefully at that soft spot in his throat. He gagged and drew back, but I kept pressing even as I heaved beneath him, throwing his balance astray when he reached for my arm. I twisted beneath him and, as my grip on his penis tightened most threateningly, his body stiffened. I forced him onto his back, that huge, powerful body of his suddenly as a child’s doll in my hands as I straddled his belly. Suddenly my right hand released his penis and darted to the tableside where our dinner platter lay, seizing up the knife and brining its point to his throat before he could react.

There was no fear in his face, but as he looked into my eyes I saw a certain doubt creep in. I reinforced it by sinking the edge of the blade into his skin. Should he make any sudden move I could open his throat with a mere twitch of my wrist.

“You keep secrets from me,” I hissed at him through clenched teeth, “You would rule me, my fine Roman. You would call me Queen amongst gods, but you would have me at your mercy. This little play act, this fiction of me as your slave, you would make it a reality, an eternal servitude!”

“Felicitas…” he began.

Tiwazō!” I hissed through clenched teeth, “You will address me by my name, not yours!”

“I… I don’t understand,” he said. There was still no fear in him, but I had expected none; he was certain I was deadly serious and that would suffice.

“You keep secrets from me, secrets of power. You flaunt them before my very eyes as if they were nothing, but I am no fool! I see them, and I know them, Talmudius Africanus Rufus!” I spat each of his names with vehemence, feeling him respond to each as if to a physical blow. “I sought them out, but they are powerful and arcane… they are secrets that must be shared and given, not spied and stolen!

He merely stared at me, his eyes filled with confusion. To my anger, I could not tell if he were feigning this or not. “You will share with me,” I whispered, leaning forward and putting more pressure on the blade, “or you will die.”

He stared into my eyes for long moments, and then spoke in careful, level tones.

“I will share all I have, anything you desire… but I still don’t know what you are talking about.”

“I am no fool! I have seen you, seen others of your kind wield these powers! You have an entire room full of these secrets and you let me wander there thinking I’ll not understand, or not bother to wonder! You flaunt these things, these scrolls…”

Suddenly his eyes widened in surprise. I think he might have laughed had he not been certain I would slit his throat for it.

“Of course,” he sighed, and chuckled a little nervously. “You cannot read, can you?”

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