Okay, okay, I said I wasn’t going to post a chapter from my upcoming historical fantasy novel, this week, but as Finn McSpool helped me realize last week, I have a HUGE pile of blog posts that I’m eager to share with you, which means I need to somehow squeeze in the final few chapters of Domna, Part One: The Sun God’s Daughter (now available for pre-order, hint hint).
Long story short: It’s time for Chapter 12.
In this chapter Sofia Domna not only learns a little bit more about her new guard, Macrinus, but also discovers the dangerous world she’ll be thrown into when she enters into her arranged marriage to Sirius Verus.
Now, kick back, put your feet up, and enjoy a bit of reading. Oh, and if you need to, you can catch up with Chapters…
Chapter 12 – The Ally
Although the weather was warm and sunny, gusts slammed into the narrow-hulled sailing ship as it was rowed into position. Before the oars were pulled in, we were temporarily broadside to the current and the boat lurched as it caught each one of the river’s wind-whipped undulations.
I had just spied a doe coming to the river’s far bank to get a drink of water when Macrinus rushed up to the side of the ship, nearly barreling into me in his haste. Thankfully, he was downwind of me as he clutched his gut and heaved over the side. It splattered into one of the oars, but the next stroke washed the mess away. Still gripping the railing, he hung his head between his arms trying to recover. I dug into my satchel and handed him a few of the mint leaves. He looked at them and turned a paler shade of green.
“I can’t eat.”
“Just chew the leaves and swallow your saliva. It’ll help.” His eyes rolled drunkenly in his head as if they were trying to move in time with the oars but couldn’t quite keep rhythm. “And it certainly can’t hurt.”
He chewed the mint slowly, grimacing with every twitch of his jaw. The boat finally shifted in line with the current, the oars were pulled in, and the sails snapped into action, allowing the vessel to ply its way westward more smoothly. Macrinus eventually swallowed and slumped down to sit, leaning against the side of the boat. Although he was naturally paler than me, his sickly pallor did improve a spot at a time until he finally turned a shade more human than lichen. Having little else to do, I sat down next to him.
“Thank you. I’ve never done well on ships or in the water. I don’t even like the deeper areas of the baths. If you don’t mind, I’m going to sit here a while. I don’t think I can stand yet, but I’d appreciate it if you stay with me, distract me from this–” he made an undulating motion with his hand.
Call me foolish, but my eyes stung with emotion at his wanting my company. I had been lonely the past year, especially after my grandfather died and Alerio departed. Saltia and Quintus had been friendly, but they were often busy, leaving me too much time for myself. I hadn’t realized how much I missed simply chatting with someone until that very moment with Macrinus. I suppose I was ridiculous, or maybe just in need of attention. I began my work of distraction by asking him about himself.
“I’m a lawyer, actually. Born and raised in Portaceae.”
“Then why are you in the vigiles? Not enough lawsuits in Portaceae to keep you busy?”
“There’s work, of course; lawyers always have clients, but all the best cases go to Athenos now that the High Court has been established there. As the new system stands, with my legal training, if I can move up in the vigile ranks, I should be able to secure a position in the Portacean government. So, I’ve strapped my hob-nails back on and am putting in my time, but I still tend to smaller cases in the capital when I’m needed.”
I was curious to learn more about the Portacean political and legal system and to hear insights into how this small Osterian city had taken the other regions of Osteria under its wing to create the realm that now spread from Vancuse in the north to the Eugenia district in the south, from the Tillaceae and Astoria poli on the Western Sea all the way over to the eastern canyon of the Styx River that led to the Chasm where the dead resided with Hades.
“Do you think Osteria will go to war with itself?” I asked, thinking of Sirius’s letters.
Macrinus shrugged. “Some would say we already are. Too many people want the poli to be independent from Portaceae, to decide their own political system, and to rule their territory from one of their own cities rather than reporting to Portaceae.”
“You sound like you favor this idea.”
“Not as it’s being proposed with each polis completely independent of each other. I think it would work if we were all still Osterian with a basic set of laws that guided us, but with each polis defining their own ways of doing things.”
Splitting from Portaceae was a recurring debate. Even as more poli – Bendria being the most recent – joined into the realm of Osteria under Portacean rule, others complained that it was inefficient for one city to rule over such a vast realm. There were plusses and minuses to both sides, and Macrinus and I debated them until I forgot about my woes and he forgot about his belly. Still, with talk of politics, our conversation eventually found its way to Sirius.
“You’ve really only known him for two days?” Macrinus asked with surprise after I told him of how I’d been betrothed.
“And that over a year ago.”
“I wouldn’t be able to wait that long for you.” His emerald eyes widened at this admission as if it had fallen from his mouth without any control. “I mean, it’s just you’re quite pretty and smart and– I’m sorry. You’d think a lawyer would have more control over his tongue.” A blush filled my cheeks as he glanced over at me through his thick eyelashes. “I should go.” He made to stand just as the boat crested over a swell and he tottered back. I steadied him, trying not to think about the strong, taut body under the tunic. He patted my hand to assure me he was alright and eased back down next to me.
“Why don’t you tell me about Sirius,” I said with forced lightness as if my heart wasn’t pounding the blood through my ears. I chided myself. I was betrothed. I could not have a girlish crush on a vigile. “That should be a topic to clear both our heads.”
He laughed at the comment. We relaxed and I sensed a change between us. The attraction we both had toward each other was obvious, but there was no point in it. I was to be married and he would likely be sent to his next station as soon as he’d delivered me to Sirius. But we would be friends on this voyage and I was thankful for that.
“He’s not a bad man. You could do a hundred times worse. And, I’m sure you think a hundred times better, but Sirius is well-respected, his family has many connections, his men trust him, and he typically has a sensible head about him.”
“There’s a man. His cousin, Plautinius.”
“Ah, yes, the Hawk.” Macrinus looked at me with amusement in his warm eyes.
“We call him that too, not to his face, of course, but that nose and those calculating eyes make you feel like a piece of prey when he stares at you. Sirius would do better without him. The Hawk is power hungry and would do anything to be more than he is.”
“No one’s certain. Some say advisor, others say a hanger-on, a collector of spoils. I think he’s waiting for Sirius to succeed or to falter, whichever comes first.”
“Why not just forge his own career?”
Macrinus shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way with some of the older Seattican families. The eldest is the one who’s given the first chance at advancement while younger siblings and cousins must wait for appointments under him.”
“That only makes sense. The eldest son usually gets the best on offer.”
“True, but things get complicated in the Verus family because Plautinius’s father was four years older than Sirius’s, so Plautinius feels his branch of the family should have the right to any advancement before Sirius does.”
“And why doesn’t he have that right?”
“Plautinius’s father died when the boys were in their teens. This legally made Sirius’s father the eldest and so Sirius is the one to advance. It’s all a mess really and, according to tradition, whatever position Sirius attains goes to Plautinius when Sirius dies. Plautinius has a better head for politics than Sirius, or at least the manipulative side of politics, but up until recently Portacean politics have been less about scheming – the Hawk’s area of expertise – and more about making friends and earning respect – Sirius’s specialty. That ability will allow him to rise higher and gain more in this new Osteria. And if Sirius were to gain a favorable enough position–”
“Do you think the Hawk would kill Sirius to claim that position?” I asked half in jest.
“A couple years ago, I’d have said no. Now, with so many plays for power going on in the capital and alliances shifting by the month, it’s hard to say what anyone would do. Whether he would or not, when things are going well for Sirius, Plautinius is there to reap the benefits. When something goes wrong, the Hawk is flying off on business elsewhere. This is a man who needs Sirius to move up in power and position. If Plautinius doesn’t like someone, if he thinks they serve no purpose, or if he thinks they’ve done something to tarnish the family’s honor, that person doesn’t stick around long.”
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like me.” The memory of the Hawk looming over Papi and me in the hallway, witnessing our kiss, sent a shiver racing through me.
“He can’t even know you.”
“Does Plautinius seem like the type who forms opinions slowly?”
“No, but stay in Sirius’s good graces and you’ll have no complaint from him. Perhaps with your wiser hand to guide him he’ll do what everyone has been advising and distance himself from Plautinius, maybe even strip the inheritance clause. Be a loyal and steady wife, bear him a son or two, and there’s no way you won’t worm your way into his heart.”
“You’re the second person to give me marital advice.” I indicated Saltia who had seemed to have forgotten her nerves and was flirting with the blonde guard she’d tumbled into earlier. “First my maid tells me finding a lover is the only way to stay happy in a marriage to such an old man. Now you tell me to be faithful. What is a girl to do?” I said this jokingly, but Macrinus fixed such a serious expression on me, the smile on my lips dropped like an anchor.
“Whatever you do in your marriage, Domna, do not have an affair. Although I’d be the first to volunteer to help you take your maid’s advice, you can’t do anything to put yourself out of favor with your husband. If Plautinius has already taken a disliking to you, he’ll be seeking out any excuse to turn Sirius against you. And it won’t just be a divorce that the Hawk will advise. You must guard yourself. There are rumors that Marcia’s illness was not sent from the gods, but from the hand of the Hawk. They are only rumors though and I can’t see any reason why the Hawk would care who Sirius is married to.”
Unless he’d heard a prophecy about a woman who might bring Sirius to power. This unnerving thought and Macrinus’s worried tone set my fears alight. Not for myself, not entirely. I was too young to imagine myself in any real danger, but Plautinius had caught Papinias and I in that hallway. Papi was then ripped from my life. Papi hadn’t written me. Why hadn’t he written? Why had he not sent even the tiniest scrap of a note? I swallowed hard, pushing down the questions that I couldn’t ask aloud.
“I understand,” I said. “Plautinius would find a way to make Sirius look like a fool for my indiscretion. I would have to be dealt with.”
“You learned quite a lot about Sirius and the Hawk in those two days.” He paused and in the hesitation I sensed he had more to say.
“What is it?” His brow furrowed with an unspoken question. “I’ve been reading people’s moods since I could walk; I can tell you’re holding something back.”
“Not exactly holding back. It’s just that I fear giving you what I carry. It’s from an old friend of yours and a dear friend of mine.”
“Papinias?” I blurted so excitedly that several heads jerked up and stared in our direction. Even Saltia glanced up from the attention of her guard. I ducked my head down guiltily and lowered my voice to a whisper. “How do you know Papinias?”
“We’re both in Sirius’s service. We became friends and he told me everything about you and what had happened to your plans. When he found out I was assigned to escort you, he wrote you a letter, but I’m afraid to give it you.”
“Why? What have they done to him?”
“Nothing. No, not nothing, they– You loved him didn’t you?”
I looked around to see that everyone had gone back to their own gaming, drinking, and flirting.
“I still do. I shouldn’t, I know, but it’s hard to break the habit. Still, he can’t care for me any longer if he hasn’t even bothered to write for over a year.”
“You must try to forget you love him. For the safety of you both. Do you promise me that?”
“I’d be more likely to forget my own name.”
“Then at least promise me you’ll behave as a wife whose life depends on her fidelity,” he said with such seriousness that I worried he might have a clearer insight into my future than my grandfather or Quintus ever had. I checked his hair for any hint of red, but even in the bright sunlight it showed only black.
“And in return for my promise?”
“I will guard you with my life for as long as we live. You may need that kind of help if the Hawk has already gotten you in his sights.”
I pondered for a moment. This man had gone from making fun me to gossiping with me, and was now pledging his life to my service. This was no joking matter. I realized I may indeed need his help and sensed I might need every ally against Plautinius I could find.
“I promise,” I said solemnly
From the pad of paper I’d seen him sketching on in the evenings, Macrinus slipped a tightly folded letter. He made to hand it over to me, but snatched it back before I could take it.
“You also have to promise to stay here as you read it.”
“Why?” I asked suspiciously.
“One, I like your company. Two, you have a wise head, but I worry that after reading this you’ll do yourself harm and toss yourself overboard. Personally, I don’t want to have to jump in to save you. I’m a terrible swimmer and I’d hate to fail at my promise to protect you when the promise is only a few heartbeats old.” He smiled, but it was a cautious one showing he was both jesting and serious at the same time.
“I’ll stay. Now, please, Macrinus.” I held out my palm, my fingers beckoning him to hand over the letter.
“One more promise.” This time all seriousness had vanished and a mischievous glint danced in his eyes.
“You’re really pressing your luck, I could snatch that letter and dash away. I’ve seen your sea legs and it’s not as if you could chase after me.” He pleaded with his wide, bright eyes like a puppy begging for scraps. “Alright, what is it?”
His lips twitched up into an infectious grin. It may be pointless, but I did enjoy the game of flirting we were playing.
“Many, many years from now when Sirius dies a very, very old man, promise me I’ll be the man who receives your first kiss as a free woman.”
The idea of Macrinus being in my life that long was like a blanket of security being draped over my shoulders. And the thought of kissing him–
I glanced away from his intense gaze, giving myself a moment to shake the tempting image from my head. I was betrothed to a man with a dangerous cousin. I could not complicate my world any further by thinking of Macrinus as anything more than a friend. I met his eyes, challenging him and showing him he couldn’t fluster me.
“You’ll still be guarding me then?”
“I could be old and ugly by the time Sirius dies.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
I couldn’t keep from laughing at his ability to rise to my bait.
“Fine, I swear it. Now give me this horrid letter that has cost me three promises.”
He handed it over. All relaxation disappeared from his lean body. He was tensed and ready to react as he watched me break the unadorned wax seal. My heart leapt at the sight of Papi’s familiar, tidy handwriting. His eyes boring into me, I glanced up at Macrinus for reassurance. He gave a little nod and I began to read.
The contents were indeed horrid.
As ever, thanks for reading. The final chapters of Domna, Part One will be posted over the next several weeks. But, if you pre-order your copy today, you can read the exciting conclusion only a few days from now!!
See you next Wednesday when I give a quick recap of my achievements and failures of 2018, and provide a glimpse into what I’m planning for 2019.
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- Domna, Part One: The Sun God’s Daughter
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- Domna, Part Five: The Forgotten Heir*
- Domna, Part Six: The Solon’s Wife*
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