Rome AD 125
He came awake. A prickling discomfort, sharpening to pain, jabbed into the middle of his back.
“Have I your attention?'” The whisper was close to his ear. He tried to turn and the knife held at his back pricked him again. “Do not look round!”
The knife-wielder was female, young, and scared. Severus could have disarmed her in less than a breath, but he guessed that she had things to tell him, things he needed to hear. So much that was strange had already happened to him today that he was astonished he had slept at all.
“Who are you?” he murmured.
“You will know, soon enough, although I tell you now that I did not know of your existence before yesterday.”
He felt her hot breath against his naked shoulder, smelt her clean skin and the peppermint leaves she used to freshen her mouth. A thread of finely-woven cloth brushed his lower back: she was crouched close to where he lay on the tiles, her knife prodding against his spine. Whoever she was, the girl was no slave, although she was as fast and nervous as one, creeping upon him in the deserted atrium. “Did you douse the lights?” he whispered in Latin.
“Yes, and drugged the maid who is my keeper, so listen! Tomorrow may be a shock at first to you - it certainly was to me and I have had a full day to reflect on it, but keep this in mind: it is a chance for you. If you pass the trial tomorrow - don't ask what, there's no time to explain! - We’ll both be sent away to the family villa at Baiae. You will have a full month. Use the days to work out an escape for yourself. Pretend you do not understand much Latin. They’ll be expecting that and it may work to your advantage. They may promise you riches and freedom. Don’t believe them! If their plans work, they will never let you live. Do you understand Greek?”
Startled by the question, he automatically answered, “Yes.”
“Good, because they do not. It may be we can speak together after all, so long as we take care.”
“What is this month you speak of? What is Baiae?”
“You will know what the month is tomorrow. Baiae is a city beside the sea, a place of hot springs, theatres, parks and boating parties; where the rich and noble go for their summer holidays. A place where behaviors frowned on here near Rome can be indulged. Now I must grope my way back, before I am missed. Farewell!”
This last was in Greek. He felt a pair of soft warm lips kiss his shoulder and even as he rolled onto his stomach, trying to catch a glimpse of her in the humid darkness, the young woman was gone. He peered into the shadows of a corridor, willing his eyes to see more, but could scarcely make out his own hands.
He waited a few moments, listening, but the great hall remained as dark and silent as a tomb. Rolling onto his back, Severus thought of the woman's warning and recalled the previous day, when everything in his life had changed.
Until yesterday he had been a field-slave, picking grapes, hoeing fields, fixing carts, repairing walls - any task about the huge farm that the overseers wanted doing quickly and well. He labored hard because it was a point of pride to do so and because then he would sleep through the night, untroubled by dreams. Yesterday had been different, beginning at dawn when two overseers had shackled him in irons and brought him to the main house, where he had never been before.
Severus is a slave, dragged from the fields to an uncertain future. Warned to expect no mercy from a mysterious young woman who comes to him in the night, he learns that his natural father is his owner, Calvus, and that he has a half-brother, Thallus.
Thallus has no sexual interest in women but he is desperate for an heir. Severus and Thallus' sexy young wife Lydia, whom Severus recognizes as the mystery woman who warned him, are sent to the family palace at Baiae and expected to breed.
Lydia, used to an unconsummated, loveless marriage, is intrigued by the handsome Severus and appalled by her husband's and father-in-law's treatment of him. She finds herself anticipating their lovemaking. She also wants to help Severus to escape because she knows that once he has served his purpose, Thallus and Calvus will never let him live.
They have just a month to escape.