From Unseen Fire is the first novel in the Aven Cycle, a historical fantasy set in an alternate Rome, by debut author Cass Morris
The Dictator is dead; long live the Republic.
But whose Republic will it be? Senators, generals, and elemental mages vie for the power to shape the future of the city of Aven. Latona of the Vitelliae, a mage of Spirit and Fire, has suppressed her phenomenal talents for fear they would draw unwanted attention from unscrupulous men. Now that the Dictator who threatened her family is gone, she may have an opportunity to seize a greater destiny as a protector of the people—if only she can find the courage to try.
Her siblings—a widow who conceals a canny political mind in the guise of a frivolous socialite, a young prophetess learning to navigate a treacherous world, and a military tribune leading a dangerous expedition in the province of Iberia—will be her allies as she builds a place for herself in this new world, against the objections of their father, her husband, and the strictures of Aventan society.
Latona’s path intersects with that of Sempronius Tarren, an ambitious senator harboring a dangerous secret. Sacred law dictates that no mage may hold high office, but Sempronius, a Shadow mage who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. As rebellion brews in the provinces, Sempronius must outwit the ruthless leader of the opposing Senate faction to claim the political and military power he needs to secure a glorious future for Aven and his own place in history.
As politics draw them together and romance blossoms between them, Latona and Sempronius will use wit, charm, and magic to shape Aven’s fate. But when their foes resort to brutal violence and foul sorcery, will their efforts be enough to save the Republic they love?
April 17, 2018
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Prologue 686 ab urbe condita The Palatine Hill, City of Aven Lucius Quinctilius was not, by nature, a reflective man, so perhaps it was just as well that the Dictator’s men gave him little time to contemplate his fate.
The morning of his execution dawned cool and fair, and no one in the household but Quinctilius himself had the slightest inclination that anything was amiss. Even Quinctilius suffered only a mild prick of unease, no more troubling than a splinter. His tongue had overrun him during his last public speech, but as a few days passed and retribution did not fall on his head, he convinced himself that the lapse had been overlooked. He had not meant anything by it, just a stray comment during legal proceedings, though it may have edged too near to criticism of Dictator Ocella. Lucius Quinctilius privately had many things to say that would have edged much closer, but he was of no mind to be a political hero for a lost cause. That had never been his intention. And surely no one was paying such close attention to the minor financial courts, not with the turmoil in the treason courts, not with riots threatening to erupt in the Subura. Surely, he was safe.
Still, suspicion twinged at the back of his mind. When he rose and dressed that morning, he considered confiding in Aula, his excellent wife. But she was so pleasant-spirited, so cheerful, even in this dark season of proscriptions and danger. He could not bear to disrupt the simple pleasure she managed to wring out of the tumultuous world.
It certainly did not occur to him to share his concerns with the other lady in his household, Aula’s younger sister, Latona. For all Quinctilius knew, she was living with them only for companionship while her husband was touring his holdings in the provinces. It would have been a blow to his dignity, had he been aware of Latona’s true motive: to watch after them, knowing that Quinctilius’s foolish streak of nobility might get the better of him, all too aware that Aula was so dizzy with motherhood and marital bliss that it had turned her a bit feather-brained.
Latona had not kept her eyes and ears alert enough outside of the household, or she might have known in time about Lucius Quinctilius’s final act of honorable idiocy. Had Latona heard of his lapse, she would not have hesitated, but packed the whole family off to her husband’s country villa that very night. But though she had returned to watch over her sister and her niece in the city, Fate kept the tale of his indiscretion from her ears a few hours too long. When six pairs of hob-nailed boots thumped up the too-quiet street to the Quinctilius domus, when six pairs of burly arms forced open the front door, she was in the back garden, unaware.
Ocella had power enough to feel no need to carry out his assassinations under cover of darkness. The lictors set upon Quinctilius in his own study, early in the morning. Ocella’s lictors were not the honorable attendants who usually accompanied politicians of consequence, but his own private killing force, a sacred and venerable office perverted to new and abhorrent purpose. They asked no questions of the man who gave their orders and issued their pay, and they made swift work.
Quinctilius hardly had time to rise from his chair. One short sword penetrated his gut; another slit his throat as he staggered to his knees; and then it was over. The expression of astonishment remained frozen on his face as his blood pooled on the geometric mosaic set in the floor, slipping like crimson mortar between the tiles.
“So much for him,” one of the lictors said, nudging at Quinctilius’s shoulder with his toe. “Where’s the next one?”
“No.” His colleague rubbed at the back of his neck. “Not yet. This one’s got a wife and a tot.”
The other lictor nodded. Proscription touched the family, as well. Quinctilius’s brother and sister resided in a province, and so his wife, Aula Vitellia Prima, eldest of the Vitelliae daughters, would have to suffice for an example— an excellent one, really, from a noble and ancient family that had not yet presented Ocella with an opportunity for chastisement.
The noise attracted Aula’s attention, drawing her across the atrium from her own rooms. A short scream escaped her before she choked it back. She scarcely had time to process her husband’s death before she had to dive to stop Lucia from toddling in and seeing her father’s corpse. The lictors had not even wiped the blood off of their blades, and in a wrenching moment, Aula realized they did not mean to do so. A shadow dimmed the pale sunlight streaking in through the open door: the Dictator himself, come to bear witness to the deed.
Ocella was a man of impressive presence, with the lean grace and threat of a panther. His hair was so fair it resembled the winter’s dawn, icy and unforgiving, but his eyes were dark pits, a blue so deep as to be nearly black, and utterly unreadable. They rested on Aula for only a moment before he made a quick gesture to summon his lictors forward.
Aula collapsed, her knees unequal to the task of holding her upright in the face of such incisively cold malice. Lucia, too, started to cry, stared up at Ocella, mouth hanging agape. “Please, Dictator,” Aula said. “P-Please. We are n-nothing. Not my baby. Sh-she’s just a child, she couldn’t—” But when Ocella held up a hand, Aula fell silent, though tears continued to stream from her eyes.
Latona flung herself through the doorway just as two of Ocella’s lictors advanced on her prostrate older sister and the frightened child. Ocella flicked his wrist, and Lucia set up a tremendous wail. Aula grabbed the girl and clutched her close, holding a hand over her mouth to stifle her cries. “Pray, do not take this personally,” Ocella said, even as Aula wept and Lucia struggled against her mother’s grasp, her pale blue eyes wild with abject fear.
Latona’s cry cut through the air, and both Ocella and Aula’s heads whipped about— Ocella indignant at the interruption, Aula horrified by Latona’s nerve. Mastering her shaking limbs, Latona strode forward with mustered confidence. “No, great Dictator,” she said, more softly, smiling at Ocella almost impishly, as though they were sharing a great joke. “Of course you don’t mean harm to Aula or Lucia. I’m sure I’ve misunderstood.”
“Have you?” Ocella said, his expression utterly unchanged. “Pray, tell me what has led you to that conclusion.”
Though Aula, tears in her eyes, shook her head in a mute plea for Latona to leave herself out of it, Latona had a plan. Not, she admitted to herself, a wholly good one, but it was certainly better than watching her sister and her niece butchered in the atrium— and likely sharing their fate. What scrap of a chance they all had rested now on Latona’s gifts. Blessed by Juno and Venus, Latona had power over the elements of Spirit and Fire, and it was Spirit that would come to her aid now, if anything could. She could not consider the possibility of failure, and as she spoke, the words tasted of cinnamon on her tongue.
“There’s no need, and it would look so ill. Everyone thinks well of Aula, and she thinks well of everyone. Especially you, Dictator. If her husband displeased you, I know she sorrows for the trouble it caused you. You can only have done right in disposing of him, we all know that. But Aula and Lucia? A cheerful woman and such a pretty child? Why, they should be allowed to speak your praises! Such magnanimousness would only make your star burn the brighter.”
Latona’s breath was shallow and hesitant, but she did not let the gracious smile fall from her lips, and she prayed that her eyes would not betray her. If Ocella suspected her of using magic against him, that would be the end of Aula, Lucia, Latona herself, and probably every other son and daughter of the Vitelliae that Ocella could get his hands on. His paranoia was even more acute concerning mages than his other foes. Never minding that ancient law prohibited mages from seeking higher political office, Ocella remained convinced that they would somehow surmount the prohibitions and use their powers to usurp his position. He had executed men and women on mere suspicion, and many more had fled the city rather than have the suggestion of treachery fall on them.
But she couldn’t think about that; any flicker of uncertainty could give her away, and doubt could shatter the spell. She let the soothing magic roll off of her, a golden wave of positive emotions washing over Ocella, and she flung silent prayers at Juno that her efforts should move him.
“Aula never chose her husband, nor Lucia her father,” she went on. “They renounce him if he caused you any misery. I pray you, mighty Dictator, do not punish them for the misfortune they’ve already suffered. Rather, show all Aven what a kindness you’ve done them, to free them from that pernicious man. They will tell all the city of their gratitude, I promise you.”
Aula was ghastly pale, her hand still clamped firmly over the weeping Lucia’s mouth. Latona had never seen her sister so frightened, a doe caught in the gaze of a ravening tiger. But after the long, horrible silence, Ocella nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said. Latona fought to keep relief from coercing her into releasing the spell too soon. “Yes, I believe you are right, Vitellia Latona,” he went on. “Your sister is such a charming woman, and this fair creature promises to be of her ilk. No need to harm them. In fact—” He twitched his finger at his bodyservant, a balding man who hovered several steps behind him and who moved immediately to scrawl Ocella’s words on a wax tablet. “We shall invite them to holiday with us in Capraia this summer. You as well, Lady Latona.” He stepped closer to her, too close. When his fingers touched her shoulder, toying idly with the brooch that fastened her gown, she held as still as death, refusing to let trembling flesh give away her terror. “We wish to see if rumor speaks true of your many talents.”
Latona blinked. “I . . . am all astonishment, honored Dictator. I cannot think what anyone could say of a simple matron to be worth your notice.”
“Come now, no false humility. Not from one blessed by Juno . . .” His thumb trailed along her collarbone, then pressed at the tender notch at the base of her throat. “And by Venus.” His easy smile warred with the intensity swirling in his unfathomable eyes, but the threat in his voice matched that of his hand at her neck. “I have such a keen interest in the magical arts, you know, though the gods did not see fit to bless me with them. Would you come to Capraia and show me, Lady Latona?”
There was a bargain in the air, and the weight of it pitted in Latona’s stomach. ‘You have walked into the trap Father feared.’ Ocella collected women and he collected mages, and she was both— an irresistable prize. ‘This is why Father wanted you married to a provincial, tucked safe away in the country.’ But neither husband nor father could stop Dictator Ocella pursuing what he wanted. Swallowing fear and revulsion, Latona nodded her assent. She would pay the price in flesh and soul, if it kept her family safe.
“Wonderful. So much better to be surrounded by charming women instead of bickering old men. And little Lucia Quinctilia might make a fine playmate for my boy. They’re of an age.” Then he laughed, that sudden burst that could come from nowhere, like the flash of lightning out of impenetrable clouds. “Perhaps we’ll have to arrange a marriage.”
And then he was gone, a storm swept out to sea, and as the footsteps of his lictors faded away down the stairs, Latona’s knees buckled underneath her. Never before had she exerted so much energy in one go, and the sudden evacuation of her focal point, combined with the weight of the bargain she had taken upon her shoulders, robbed her of even the strength to stand. One of the slaves moved fast enough to keep her head from cracking against the floor, and the last thing she heard before fainting dead away was Aula dissolving into hysterical sobs of sorrow and relief.
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