A Sneak Peek at the next volume in the Light in the Empire series
Coming late summer of 2022
Chapter 1: The New Man in Charge
Urban Cohort Headquarters in the Praetorian Fortress.
Rome, Day 1, AD 128
With a snap, Gaius Acilius Glabrio shut the last of the wax tablets and added the report to the finished pile. In the warehouse district, a small fire, quickly extinguished, might have been arson. The nighttime robbery of a jeweler’s shop in Trajan’s Market had ended in the murder of the owner and the disappearance of his goldsmith and the slave girl who tended the shop. The goldsmith was Glabrio’s first suspect, but was the girl an innocent victim, an accomplice, or the real murderer?
He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Hunting lawbreakers and bringing them to justice had become his passion since he took over as tribune of the XI Urban Cohort several months ago. He’d been trained by the best as Urban Prefect Saturninus made him shadow then-tribune Titus Titianus on his last investigation before he retired.
But the lessons about honor and truth he’d learned as he spied on Titianus for his commander made him an uncompromising copy of the tribune Saturninus despised. The prefect was a close friend of Glabrio’s father, but even if the affection Saturninus showed Father was real, it did not extend to him.
He’d irritated his commander with his failure to discover and betray what Emperor Hadrian’s Praetorian Prefect had ordered Titianus to conceal. Since Glabrio took over the XI Cohort, he’d angered his commander each time he refused to discuss details of a case until he had enough evidence to arrest and convict the guilty. He’d infuriated the prefect when he refused to ignore some wrongdoing by a client of one of Saturninus’s personal friends.
Glabrio rubbed his jaw. No one died in the fire, so the robbery and murder would get his full attention this morning. With his fingers laced atop his head, he leaned back in his chair and contemplated the spider that had spun its web where wall met ceiling. The tiny hunter was the picture of patience as it waited to kill and eat.
Had the goldsmith watched and waited for the right moment to kill his master, take the gold, and run? Or was someone else guilty of murder, and the goldsmith ran because he feared he’d be blamed and executed for not stopping it? Had the girl run for the same reason?
The scraping of Plancus’s chair legs on tile drew his eyes to the door.
“Prefect.” The thud of his optio’s fist hitting his chest triggered an eyeroll, but Glabrio stopped it before Saturninus stepped through his doorway.
Glabrio stood and struck his chest. “Prefect. What may I do for you?”
“I dined with your father last night.” Saturninus lowered himself into the guest chair and motioned for Glabrio to sit. “We discussed you.”
Glabrio sat and rested clasped hands on his desk. Did Saturninus want a response or respectful silence? Either could trigger his commander’s frown, but a smug smile appeared instead.
Saturninus picked up Glabrio’s stylus and rolled it between his fingers. “While you served here in Rome, we both thought you would form some good friendships of your own with your father’s colleagues and supporters. But with your disregard for friendship, family obligations, and the privilege of rank that you learned from that equestrian you replaced―you’ve made that less likely than we thought.”
“Getting to the truth and delivering justice matter.” Glabrio’s words triggered the tick at the corner of Saturninus’s mouth that declared his commander’s disagreement.
With a flick of his hand, Saturninus swept Glabrio’s words aside. “You’ve squandered this first opportunity, but I proposed another to your father. He sees the benefit you’re certain to gain from it.”
“Father does have exceptional skill at seeing a political advantage.” Glabrio’s smile was more subdued than what his commander probably wanted. But it was unwise to act too pleased when he didn’t know what was coming. “As you do as well.”
Father considered Saturninus a good friend, but Titianus had told Glabrio more than once that what passed for friendship often wasn’t. The friend of your father wasn’t always your friend. He might even be your enemy, but he usually wouldn’t strike while he still wanted your father’s friendship.
The warmth of Saturninus’s smile as he received the compliment didn’t reach his eyes. “We do, and I can make certain you take proper advantage of this opportunity. The tribune of the XIII Urban Cohort in Carthago is moving up to be a questor. I’m transferring you to take his place.”
“Carthago.” He barely stopped his jaw dropping before Saturninus saw. Father had said a year in Rome should be enough before he transferred to a post with a fighting legion on the frontier. But being in charge of the men who policed the fourth largest city in the Empire―he never expected that.
Glabrio cleared his throat. “Being the new man in charge there should prove highly advantageous, as you say. When will I be going?”
“Now.” A slow grin crept across Saturninus’s face, reminding Glabrio of a cat with a dead mouse between its paws. “Tribune Nepos will be sailing for Rome in two weeks. You need to go before then so there’s no break in the command there.”
“I have a few matters to tie up, but I can be ready to sail in six or seven days. Then Nepos will have enough time to tell me about the cases I’ll need to continue working.” Saturninus’s eye roll drew Glabrio’s broad smile, but the prefect would probably think gratitude inspired it. “I look forward to the challenge. Thank you.”
Saturninus stood, and Glabrio followed his lead. His fist stuck his chest as his commander left the room. Then he sank into his chair.
Within a week, he’d be on a ship to the capital of Africa Proconsularis and a highly visible posting. The grin had barely formed before it faded; then the corners of his mouth drooped. Politically, it was highly desirable, but it came at a cost. For however long he would command the XIII Cohort, he’d be leaving the true friends he’d made through Titianus. Would he find even one friend he could trust where Saturninus was sending him?
Carthago, capital of Africa Proconsularis, morning of Day 1
Martina closed Grandfather’s eyes before taking his still-warm hand in both of hers.
“Find my uncle and tell him Grandfather’s gone.”
Martina swept aside the first tear before Platana passed her a dry handkerchief and slipped out of the room.
He’d told her to go to bed, to get some rest because she’d been at his side for hours. He’d promised not to die while she slept. It was the only time he’d given her his word and failed to keep it.
She shook out the handkerchief and wiped each cheek in turn.
His death came too soon. Not only because he was the last of the family who’d truly loved her, but because she couldn’t be sure she’d see him again.
When her parents died of the fever eight years ago, Grandfather had sent the carriage and bodyguards to bring her from the estate near Cigisa to the town house in Carthago. Stone-faced, he’d met the only child of his favorite son like the Stoic he was. She’d lowered her gaze to his feet as he crossed his arms and stared at her. But it was only grief that had made Grandfather so cold that day.
His second wife Juliana had stepped forward to wrap a broken-hearted girl of eleven in her arms. She’d held Martina from the first whimper through the racking sobs to the final shivering sigh. Then she’d loved Martina more than even Mother had, and she’d told Martina how God loved her, too.
When Juliana died six months ago, Martina had no doubt of their future reunion with Jesus in heaven. Her grandmother’s last words as she left this world to be with their Lord still echoed in Martina’s mind. Convince the man they both loved so dearly to embrace the Truth before it was too late.
He wasn’t interested. Whenever Martina tried to tell him what Jesus had done for every living soul, Grandfather smiled indulgently and told her what he’d told Juliana. She could believe what she wished, but don’t let anyone outside their familia learn of her faith.
But this week, as Grandfather’s vigor drained away, he’d listened. He’d asked questions. But what had he decided?
At the sound of footsteps, she squared her shoulders. Uncle Volero had been jealous of Grandfather’s greater affection for her father. Envy of his brother became resentment toward her when Grandfather favored her over Volero’s children.
And now he was her guardian.
Her uncle only glanced at her before his gaze locked onto Grandfather. His jaw clenched, silencing any sounds of grief before they could escape. She’d seen the same with Grandfather when Juliana died. Grandfather raised his sons as Stoics, and such men kept their tears stanched and their cries of anguish stifled when someone they loved died.
But even a man who could hold in his tears couldn’t hide the haunted look of a new orphan when the father he loved was gone.
If only she could comfort him with words about the promise of eternal life with the Lord, like God had given Juliana. But she couldn’t. She didn’t know herself what Grandfather had decided about Jesus.
But even if she did, Uncle Volero would only mock what she said and then get angry at her for saying it. If anyone discovered the Martinus family had been infiltrated by Christians―that would undermine his influence in the council. Even his wife and children didn’t know her secret.
“You should have called me in time for the final kiss to receive his soul as he died and then to close his eyes.” He glared at her. “I’m his son. That was mine to do.”
“He died in the night.” With her handkerchief, she caught the escaping tear. “He made me leave and go rest for a while. When he promised me he wouldn’t die before morning, I believed him.” She tightened her lips to stop the quiver. “I closed his eyes without thinking, or I would have let you do it.”
Uncle’s sigh was deep. “What’s done is done.”
As he stood across the bed from Martina, Uncle took Grandfather’s hand from her, removed the signet ring, and slipped it onto his own finger. He placed first one, then the other hand on his father’s chest. “I always thought it a waste of time when my tutor made me memorize so much of what Seneca wrote. But Father had memorized it when he was young, so he insisted.” He placed his hand atop Grandfather’s. “‘It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it.’ Father quoted that so often. He used to say we’d be given enough time to accomplish the greatest things if we only invested the time we had wisely.”
He rubbed his mouth. “But it doesn’t feel like enough right now.”
Martina bit her lip as she wiped away a new teardrop. It hadn’t been enough. Not because Grandfather hadn’t accomplished many things because he had. He’d been duumvir of the city, served for years on the city council, enlarged the family estates, added the glassworks to his business holdings, and made her uncle an important man in the city as well.
But he’d died before he told her what he decided about Jesus. A fresh tear trickled down her cheek, and she swept it away. How could she bear the uncertainty? She could tell herself he must have chosen to believe. How could he not? But that didn’t mean he had.
“Father was duumvir, so many will come to pay respects. So, the funeral rites will be here in Carthago and public.” The corners of his mouth turned down when his gaze turned from Grandfather to her. “They will also be completely Roman rites.” His eyebrows dipped. “You will do nothing that would make someone suspect Father was hiding Christians in his household.”
Did he think she was that reckless? She couldn’t count how many times Grandfather had stressed that point.
“I will also make offerings for my step-mother as part of the rites for Father. I don’t want anything from you that would suggest to anyone that she wasn’t a pious Roman matron. Father buried Juliana with Roman rites, even though it was only our family and a few close friends out at the estate. He would want that reputation preserved.”
Martina’s jaw clenched. The hypocrisy of Grandfather pretending Juliana wasn’t a Christian and cremating her in the Roman way with all the rites and offerings, as if she believed in the pagan gods she’d rejected―it hadn’t surprised Martina, but it heaped grief upon grief as she was forced to pretend Juliana would have wanted what they did.
“I’m not stupid, Uncle. I know that could be dangerous to me and embarrassing to you.”
“You were stupid enough to let Juliana convince you to think a crucified rebel died for you both and then came back to life as a god. You still believe that ridiculous story.”
“It’s not ridiculous, and Grandfather was considering it when he died.”
Valero inhaled sharply, and his frown became a scowl. “Don’t ever repeat what you just said. Father remained a Stoic and a good Roman.”
Anger had swept the grief from her uncle’s face. To choose to antagonize him now, when her authority as domina over the household had died with Grandfather―that would be stupid. But being faithful was more important than being smart.
“I don’t know what he decided, but you don’t need to worry. I won’t say what I don’t know for certain, and I don’t plan to tell anyone who comes that I’m a Christian, either.” She squared her shoulders. “But don’t ask me to say or do anything as part of those rites that would look like I’m worshipping the gods of Rome. I won’t betray my God that way. Besides, your daughters can do whatever people will expect, and they won’t mind at all.”
His jaw clenched. “If it wouldn’t look strange and spawn gossip, I’d pack you off to one of my estates before the funeral. I’ll let nothing tarnish Father’s reputation among the elite of the city.”
She squared her shoulders and raised her chin. “Grandfather may have made you my guardian under Roman law, but you are not my paterfamilias. I’m sui iuris now, and you can’t order me to go anywhere.”
She drew a breath and blew it out slowly. Uncle had no official power over her, but he could make her life difficult. Roman law said he had to approve her major financial decisions as long as he was her guardian.
She softened her tone of voice. “I know you only have my best interest at heart, Uncle. Let’s not argue when grief might make us say what we don’t really mean.”
A sad smile curved her lips. “If I leave Carthago, I’ll go to my own estate near Cigisa. It became mine when Mother died, and it’s been well managed by her family’s steward these past eight years. But for whatever Grandfather might have bequeathed to me, I’ll welcome your guidance. Grandfather always said you were wise in the ways of business. You made him proud.”
Volero had been bristling like an angry guard dog, but her last words relaxed his scowl into a slight frown. “I’ll decide how to handle that after Father is properly buried as the important man he was. You can wait for me to deal with his will until we finish the nine days of mourning.”
“Of course, Uncle.”
“But what you propose for the funeral…we can do that. My girls are eager to move to town from the estate, and my wife will want to take on all the hostess duties you’ve been doing for Father. They’ll gladly do what the Roman rites require.” He squeezed the back of his neck. “I’ve sent word to the undertaker, and he’ll be here shortly to prepare everything for Father to lie in state. If you would oversee that, at least…”
A sigh drained his lungs, and for a moment, the proud, capable man who helped run the city looked more like a lost child.
“You don’t need to worry about that. I helped with Juliana, and you can leave it all to me.” Preparing Juliana’s body for a pagan funeral had driven a dagger into her already-wounded heart, but Grandfather had needed her help. Uncle Volero needed it now.
His frown relaxed into the slight downturn of heart-felt grief. “My son can’t return from Alexandria in time, but I’ve already sent the message for Artoria and my girls to come from the estate.” He massaged the back of his neck. “You can stay here as long as you wish, but we’ll continue keeping your religion secret from the three of them.”
“Thank you, Uncle. I agree that’s wise.” She’d stay for a while, but this house that had been a home while Juliana and Grandfather lived was only a building now. How long she would stay…only time would tell.
Volero drew the sheet over Grandfather’s face and flicked his hand to send her out of the room ahead of him. As she passed through the doorway, she looked over her shoulder. Grandfather’s body would have a Roman funeral, but his soul…
God, please let him have decided to believe. Let him and Juliana be together once more, joyful in Your presence until someday I join them, too.