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Bernal has brought Nero back to life, and she has explored that life with a profound sweep and brilliance.Mary Anne Yarde
International Award-winning Author
Politics and treachery threaten to end Nero's reign before it begins, forcing him to turn to unexpected sources for friendship and help. Many of the Praetorian Guard have watched over Nero since he was a small child, and it is in Traian that the young Emperor places his trust, despite the inherent threat of reducing his mother's influence. Traian is the father he never had and the one man who does not judge him.
When Traian secretly marries the hostage Vena, it sets in motion a collision of values as Traian comes to odds with his former charge. The whirlwind that follows will shake the very foundations of the greatest Empire the world has ever known, and survival is far from guaranteed.
Release date: February 14, 2021
Publisher: Whispering Legends Press
Print pages: 217
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Mary Ann Bernal
Lucius looked upon his Uncle Claudius, unsure of his position at the Imperial Court. His mother stood next to the person who had rescinded his banishment. Her eyes piercing, boring into his soul, added to his discomfort. He wanted to run into her loving arms, but he dared not. Barely four summers, instinct prevented him from revealing emotion. His aunt never held him. Why should his mother? But the man beside her, the newly proclaimed ruler of the Empire, looked warmly upon him. Yet he, too, did not move, nor did he beckon him closer.
He saw them all, men and women watching and waiting for a misstep from the corner of his eye. They ignored his tender age. Lucius glanced behind him, looking for Traian, who nodded, strengthening his waning courage.
“Come forward, child,” Claudius said.
Lucius walked purposely towards the kind man, bowed, then stood at attention, like a Centurion, awaiting further orders, much to Emperor Claudius’s amusement.
“This palace is now your home, Lucius. Go now. We shall meet again.”
A woman took Lucius’s hand and led him out of the room, followed by Traian, who kept his fingers on his sheathed sword while walking the lengthy corridor. The Praetorians were everywhere, patrolling the palace hallways and grounds. Their presence was necessary in such volatile times. When they reached Lucius’s bedchambers, guards opened the doors and closed them again afterward.
“Do not be frightened. I am called Vena and will look after you. My chamber is next to yours, and your Guard will sleep over there.”
“I am called Traian.”
“Traian. I am to stay with the boy and shall oversee his needs, but it appears you have also been given the same orders.”
“The journey was long, and we have yet to eat.”
“I will see to your needs. It is safe here. I am sure you have many questions. They shall be answered upon my return.”
As soon as Vena left, Lucius ran to Traian, embracing his legs as pent-up tears cascaded down his face. He gently removed Lucius’s arms and picked him up with fatherly compassion, holding him tightly and speaking comforting words until the sobbing stopped.
Initially, Traian resented supervising Lucius’s care while at his Aunt Lepida’s estates in the South. Instead of joining the legions in Germania or Gallia, Traian’s father had procured the innocuous post. A defender to thwart assassins since many feared Caligula sought his nephew’s death. Unlike his father, Traian was unaware of the political storm looming within the Imperial Court. Caligula’s tyranny and depravity lost him the favor of the people. The Senate and Praetorians could no longer condone such erratic behavior. Caligula must be deposed, but when? Lucius had to survive Caligula’s reign. And Traian would be rewarded for protecting the future Emperor during a turbulent time. He could truthfully deny any knowledge of treasonous plots against the reigning Emperor.
Traian had grown fond of the child, treating him as a son, and was determined to keep him alive while exiled. Lucius spent his days playing with the servants’ children in the fields. The boy became attached to a Greek slave who had performed in Athens while still a freeman. The Greek slave taught Lucius verse and poetry, encouraging his interests in musical instruments, and presented Lucius with a lyre he had made days before the child left.
“Lucius, look, your lyre stands in the corner.”
He ran to the instrument and picked it up. Fingering the strings, Lucius played the few notes the Greek slave had taught him.
“Can we send for the Greek slave,” Lucius said. “He is a good teacher, and I like him.”
“I shall make inquiries, starting with Vena.”
The sound of opening doors caused Lucius to stand behind Traian.
“Fear not, it is I,” Vena said as slaves placed platters of food and drink upon a table.
The soldiers guarding the room shut the door as soon as the servants left.
“The food is safe to eat,” Vena said as she ate a slice of bread. “Take what you want, and I will taste it first.”
Traian poured himself watered wine, sipping the beverage while watching Vena and Lucius. Her youthful appearance suggested they were of similar age, but where was she from? Syria, Cyprus, or Greece? Or elsewhere? Which province produced such a rare gem? Her long dark hair accentuated her sparkling eyes. Her smile was soft and inviting, her graceful movements demure yet tempting. Her words floated in the air, pleasing to the ear, her kindness not feigned. She captivated them both and did not know the power she possessed. Her humility and compassion enhanced her beauty, and Traian wanted her for himself.
“What is this?” Vena asked Lucius as she picked up the lyre.
“It was made for me by a Greek slave who taught me how to play,” Lucius said. “I had lessons before coming here. Please, send for him so he may teach me.”
“We shall find someone suitable. But I think you should rest, little one. You have had a long journey.”
Lucius did not complain when Vena put him to bed. She sat beside him, singing songs from her childhood, comforting words of love and peace. Once Lucius slept, Traian beckoned Vena into his chambers. He offered her wine, but she refrained.
“The Emperor asked me to watch over the boy. He felt a stranger would be more suitable, someone without familial alliances or allegiance to the Senate. I am from Gallia, well versed in Latin and Greek. I have since heard the tales of Caligula and Claudius and why Lucius was exiled. I give you my word; the boy will not be harmed.”
“I have protected Lucius since his mother’s banishment and will continue to protect him until I am given a new post. I have always been discreet, staying in the shadows. My presence has not interfered with Lucius’s activities. Like you, I have never lived in the Imperial Palace before. My allegiance is to Lucius, but I would have us be friends. Fate has brought us together. Do you not agree?”
“The hour grows late. If there is nothing further, I will return to my bedchamber.”
Raising his cup towards her, he said, “Until tomorrow, then.”
Traian could have seduced her, but he preferred she came to him. He would know more of this woman whom he found intriguing. She was worth pursuing, but to what end? He doubted his father would approve of such a marriage.
Patience, Traian thought. You have just arrived in this den of vipers. There are women to satisfy your needs, do not be hasty. And tell no one of your feelings. A slip of the tongue could cost you your life.
Drawing his sword when he heard footsteps, Traian looked upon Lucius running towards him.
“I do not like it here. I want to stay with you,” Lucius said.
Traian placed the child in his bed and covered him with a blanket while saying, “Everything will be well. It is different, but that is all. I will stay by your side.”
“My mother did not come. Why, Traian? Did I do something wrong? I pretended to be a Centurion like you taught me. How will we find her? There are so many rooms.”
“Your mother will find you as soon as she is able. If your mother serves the Empress, then she must finish her duties before spending time with you. We will know more tomorrow. Sleep now.”
Lucius embraced the man he considered his father, squeezing his arm tightly before turning on his side. The child’s breathing softened, and his body loosened.
Traian understood why Lucius feared being alone in the dark. It was in the darkness when the soldiers came into the bedchamber Lucius had shared with his mother, the night he was sent away. All he remembered were the swords and the slaves screaming, and his mother being dragged from the room. It had taken Traian weeks to quiet the child’s nightmares, and he always kept one lamp burning. Yet the steady flame cast a shadow on the wall, unrecognizable shapes, an omen of what was to come if one believed in such things.
Tread carefully. You know not the enemy, Traian thought, keeping his dagger by his side as his heavy eyelids closed.
Vena sat on the bed, staring at the doorway, worried Traian might enter unannounced, to have his way with her. She would take her life before subjecting herself to a man’s lustful intentions. Tears spilled when remembering the day the legionnaires came for her. The rebellion had been put down quickly, her father beheaded, and her brother swearing allegiance to Rome, and offering his sister to the Emperor as a hostage or slave, he cared not which.
Why had her father fought with the Proconsul? The man was dishonest, as were most of the men governing the provinces. How had her father managed to excite their people to rise up against the Imperial captors? Was it the cruel execution of the Christians? But they were too few. And she and her family worshipped the Roman gods and recognized the Divinity of the Caesars. What had the Proconsul done to her father? They had been loyal to Rome, living a life of privilege. It was the only life she ever knew. Her brother had not been forthcoming, and he was nowhere to be found during the insurrection. Yet he stood next to the Proconsul when their father lost his life.
Whatever the cause, the uprising failed, and order was restored. Vena’s brother took his father’s place among the governing hierarchy, advising the Proconsul and denouncing any who dared to question the Empire’s laws. Had her brother betrayed their father? She refused to believe such disturbing thoughts, yet she could not suppress her misgivings.
After the uprising, conditions for her people worsened. She watched the punishments from the window, imprisoned in a palatial room while awaiting transport. She caught a glimpse of her brother with the Proconsul’s daughter on his arm. Vena believed her brother had manipulated her father to break from the Empire, thereby sealing his fate. Sending his sister to the Emperor proved her brother’s loyalty while removing a threat to his rule.
You were wise to do so, my brother. If I had found you culpable in our father’s death, I would have your head.
Once the fighting ended, the legion returned to the Imperial City. The Commander had treated Vena compassionately on the march, keeping her in his tent when they stopped for the night. The gossipmongers assumed he had deflowered her during the journey, but the rumors were untrue. He was an honorable man, and her virtue inviolate.
Vena shared the Commander’s meals, speaking of happier times, pushing their demons away. She sensed his anguish as he gazed into the fire, wondering about his life. He did mention some of the tales about the happenings at the Imperial Court before mischief befell her. The Commander also warned her to choose her friends cautiously.
Had it not been for the Commander’s wise counsel, an innocent mistake could have sealed Vena’s fate. When she arrived at the Imperial Palace, she lowered her eyes when presented to the Emperor, kneeling in supplication, her dignity intact. Vena heard the whispers, feeling disapproving looks glaring at her. Yet she refused to cower before their predetermined judgment. Claudius pitied the youthful woman who reminded him of his daughter. He took her into his household, uttering reassurances that all would be well, a hostage in name only, and being permitted to walk unattended throughout the corridors and gardens.
It took Vena several weeks to become accustomed to her new life. Claudius did not treat her as a servant, but the Empress, Messalina, did. During this time, several slaves befriended the lonely woman, but she hesitated revealing anything that might cause her to be put in chains. With little to do within the palace walls, Vena explored the city, accompanied by a Praetorian, who maintained his distance, providing a semblance of freedom for Claudius’s favored captive.
When Vena overheard Claudius speaking of his nephew’s return, she offered to take charge of the boy and thanked the one true God for His intercession. Unbeknownst to anyone, Vena had been baptized into the Christian faith shortly before her father’s rebellion. She kept her beliefs to herself, not having the courage to admit the truth publicly. The risks were great, and she feared dying a torturous death. Her father and brother had been unaware. And after what had transpired, she thanked God she had held her tongue.
Vena had yet to learn where the Christians lived. She wanted to pray with them and listen to the words of Christ, and not to be afraid to die in His name. Vena had to wait until receiving permission to walk the streets unattended. She needed Claudius’s approval to venture out alone. But if Traian spoke the truth about developing a friendship, he might be of help, and together they could find the followers of Jesus Christ living within Rome.
Walking softly towards the door, Vena pressed her ear against the wood structure, but no sounds could be heard. Assuming Traian and Lucius slept, Vena knelt beside her bed and prayed.
“Dear Lord, I thank you for this day. Give me the courage to do your will as I am fearful. I trust in you, my God.”
Vena slid beneath the covers, placing a dagger under her pillow before resting her head.
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