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Blood Games [MultiFormat]
eBook by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook Description: Since 1978, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has produced about two dozen novels and numerous short stories detailing the life of a character first introduced to the reading world as Le Comte de Saint-Germain. We first meet him in Paris during the reign of Louis XV when he is, apparently, a wealthy, worldly, charismatic aristocrat, envied and desired by many but fully known to none. In fact, he is a vampire, born in the Carpathian Mountains in 2119 BC, turned in his late-thirties in 2080 BC and destined to roam the world forever, watching and participating in history and, through the author, giving us an amazing perspective on the time-tapestry of human civilization. In Blood Games, beginning during the reign of Nero, Saint-Germain finds his way through the political turmoil of the time, and becomes the lover of the incomparable Atta Olivia Clemens.

eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1979
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2010


5 Reader Ratings:
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1

* * * *

DUSK HAD FALLEN, turning the very air of Rome an intense blue in the last struggle of day with night. The evening was warm and the breath of the city pungent, but the air in the Greek-style atrium smelled of cinnamon, scented by the dozen little braziers where incense burned. Now the slaves were busy lighting the hanging lanterns and setting out the low tables beside the couches where the guests would recline for the banquet.

Petronius strolled through the atrium, half-smiling as he watched the slaves work. He was tall for a Roman, with fashionably cut brown hair that was touched with gray now. At thirty-four his attractive face had a curiously unfinished look and his dark blue eyes were tired and old under straight brows. Rather than a toga, he wore a charioteer's tunica, but instead of rough linen, his was made of fine white silk. He stopped beside the fountain and sniffed at the water as he caught it in one hand. A faint scent of jasmine perfumed the fountain. Satisfied with the fragrance, Petronius stepped back. Near him, hanging on the bough of a blooming peach tree, a tintinnabulum sounded its little phallic chimes as the evening breeze touched it. Petronius reached out and negligently tweaked the branch so that the tiny silver bells jangled together. He was about to go to the kitchens at the back of the house when his houseman, an old Greek slave called Artemidorus, stopped him.

"Master, a visitor," said Artemidorus as he hurried into the atrium.

"A visitor? Not a guest?" The banquet would not begin for almost an hour, and it was more usual for the guests to arrive late than early. "Who is it?"

The houseman bowed slightly. "A Senator."

Petronius sighed. "What does he want?" For he undoubtedly wanted something, which was part of the price exacted of those who stood high in the young Emperor's esteem.

"He did not say, master. Shall I refuse him?" The old Greek was eager to do so, and he smiled as he asked.

"No, better not. He'll only come back later and be more insistent. Show him...where?...into the receiving room, I guess, and tell him I'll be with him shortly. It would be a pleasure to keep him waiting, but with guests coming..." He felt resigned to the company of the Senator. "Artemidorus, do you know which Senator this is?"

The houseman paused. "Yes. I know him." He said it with distaste, and the faintest sign of fear.

"Aaaaah." Petronius drew the word out. "Tell me."

"It is Cornelius Justus Silius." There was more disgust in his voice.

"What can that old ferret want with me?" he wondered aloud. "Bring him here, then. And make no attempt to hide our activities. He will want me to include him, and it will be a great pleasure to decline." He motioned Artemidorus away and signaled one of the slaves to bring a chair from the house.

"Just the one?" the slave asked, leaving off rubbing the tables with lemon rind.

"For the Senator," Petronius said sweetly, then chose the nearest couch and sank down upon it.

He did not have long to wait for his inopportune visitor. Very shortly Artemidorus returned, escorting the Senator Cornelius Justus Silius. "Good evening, Justus," Petronius said, indicating the chair the slave had brought.

Justus eyed the chair, fuming at this minor, casual insult.

The Senator was an expert in such matters, having over the years learned how to dash hopes with the lift of his brows. He was close to fifty now, and had weathered three severe political storms since he had come to the Senate twenty-three years before. With a slight shrug of his heavy shoulders he took the chair, concealing his dislike of Petronius with a condescending smile. "I heard you were expecting guests, and so I won't stay."

Petronius leaned back on the couch and watched Justus through narrowed eyes.

"I have a minor problem, and ordinarily I wouldn't trouble you with it, but I haven't been much in the imperial presence of late, and you're more familiar with the latest..."

"Gossip? Quirks? Outrages?" Petronius suggested.

"Imperial tastes!" Justus snapped. "I'm planning on sponsoring a few days of Great Games, and as editor, I would want to present those encounters that would most please the Emperor, particularly if you can suggest some novelty that would satisfy Nero. I'd be much appreciative, Petronius. And while I'm not a rich man--"

"What would you call rich?" Petronius interrupted with a disarming smile. "You have eight estates and your family has always been wealthy, hasn't it? I had not heard that you had suffered any misfortune of late."

Justus moved uncomfortably and adjusted his toga. "It's true that I have some substance, but my lamentable cousin did much to compromise our name when he made that ill-considered alliance with Messalina...Claudius ruined that woman, and Gaius should have realized it." He watched Petronius closely.

"That was years ago," his reluctant host said, sounding bored. "Nero is not overly attentive to the glorification of Divus Claudius. Surely a man of your rank and substance does not need a kind word from me."

"Not a kind word, no," Justus said heavily. "But the Great Games must be spectacular and original enough to bring me recognition once more."

"Why? Are you plotting again?" He asked it lightly, with elegant mockery, but the question was serious.

"I?" Justus shook his head, an expression of gentle sagacity on his rough-hewn features. "No. I should think the family has learned its lesson by now. We know what plots lead to."

"But you seek to return to Nero's notice," Petronius pointed out politely.

"That's a different matter." Justus gave Petronius a measuring look. He had heard that Titus Petronius Niger was more subtle than he seemed and more intelligent than was thought. There were those verses, of course, and strange, sarcastic tales he was said to have written. He decided on another tack. "It does me no good at all to sit back, tend my estates and go to the Senate upon occasion if I don't have a sensible relationship with Nero. Think a moment. He could seize my lands, imprison me or my wife, or both of us, he could decide that he must have all my revenues, leaving me not precisely a beggar, but close enough. If he is well-inclined on my behalf, then I need have no worries. It would be a great weight off my mind. I confess, since I've married again, I've felt a growing need to make my position secure, not for myself, of course, but for Olivia, who is certainly destined to outlive me."

"Your first two wives didn't," Petronius observed.

"Corinna is still alive. It may appear cruel to divorce a mad-woman, but there, what could I do? I had no heirs and was not likely to get them with her. She is well-tended and I have reports from those set to care for her." He did not want to talk about his first two wives, but it would be unwise to avoid the subject. He knew Roman opinion came out of gossip and rumors, and he could not afford any more hints that Corinna's insanity and Valentina's death were his fault. "Valentina, well, nothing but good of the dead, naturally. An unfortunate young woman."

"All your friends must hope that Olivia will not be similarly unfortunate." Petronius decided that he did not like Cornelius Justus Silius. He had long considered the old Senator an unpleasant and self-serving man, but this latest hypocrisy for his wives was ugly. Only the most cynical Roman would feel anything but pity for Atta Olivia Clemens, who at age twenty had been all but sold to Justus by her high-bred but ruined family.

"The welfare of my wife is my concern," Justus said tightly.

"Yes, it is," Petronius agreed. "But about these Games you mentioned...?"

"I would want to have them in June, before it is too hot to enjoy them. It may be a little late to start, but with your assistance I'm certain that a creditable number of contests can be arranged. I've already spoken to the masters at the Great School and the Dacian School and they tell me that my fighters are ready to appear in the arena. I watched a retiarius work out with a secutor, and was quite pleased. The retiarius handled his net like a veteran and when the secutor pulled the trident out of his hands, he was still able to immobilize him with the net. They train well at the Dacian School, just as well as the Great School. The secutor...I saw him out of his armor. A great beast of a man, some sort of bastard German, and itching for a real fight. I may want to have a closer look at that one. They call him Arnax, but I gather it's a nickname: his native one is probably unpronounceable." His eyes were distant, lingering on the hard muscles and brutish face of his German secutor.

Petronius' soft, lazy voice interrupted his thoughts. "You can't have an entire course of Games depending on your fighters alone." He had seen the expression change on Justus' face and it confirmed his suspicions. "You'll have to arrange for others, as well. The masters of the Schools should be able to tell you who has fighters ready to go. The Bestiarii School will have new talents just now, too. I know of a Lusitanian who works with trained bears. He hasn't been seen too much. I think that Marcus Sextus Marco owns him, but I may be wrong." He knew for a fact that the Lusitanian bear trainer had been sold a few days before to an unnamed buyer, but it pleased him to think he could send Justus on a fool's errand.

"Bears? That's a start, I suppose." Justus shifted in the chair and wished that Petronius would send for wine.

"That foreigner, Ragoczy Saint-Germain Franciscus, surely you've met him?" Petronius said with sly condescension. "He has a very special charioteer, an Armenian woman with her own team of horses. I've only seen her once. You might find out if he'll let you have her for your Games. He's got access to animals, too, if you're planning to have a venation. Ordinary wild beasts are no longer interesting, unless you have a tribe of pygmies to hunt them. See if Franciscus can find you a few unusual animals for the hunt."

Justus nodded slowly. He had considered opening his Games with something other than a hunt, even though it was traditional, but might reconsider. "No, I don't know this fellow. A foreigner, you say?"

"Apparently from Dacia, but not a Daci himself. His body slave is the most arrogant Egyptian in Rome. Where have you been, Senator? Franciscus has been in Rome almost a year, and you say you haven't met him?" Petronius was enjoying his unwelcome guest's discomfort. He decided to make it worse." He has been asked by the Emperor himself to teach him to play the Egyptian harp."

"Nero and music!" Justus scoffed, doing his best to ignore an unpleasant twinge of anxiety. "He will tire of it, and then this foreigner will look elsewhere for society."

"Perhaps." As he propped himself on his elbow, Petronius caught sight of Artemidorus gesturing impatiently from the other side of the garden. Time was getting short, he knew, and his guests would arrive soon.

Justus would have liked to object knowledgeably, yet could not. To any other man he would have shown an angry face and a rude departure, but he could not afford to alienate this infuriating man who lounged so insolently before him. "He has access to animals, you say?"

"Bacchus alone knows where he gets them. Tiger horses, white bears, tigers of all sorts, thick-coated leopards from beyond Hind, camels, Scythian hounds, broad-antlered deer from the far north, great elk from Britannia, he can get them all, and more besides. He claims to have blood relatives everywhere to do his bidding." Petronius laughed low in his throat.

The list was astonishing. Justus listened greedily, wondering how he might approach this foreigner. "It would be a splendid venation, with such animals," he said reflectively.

"Certainly one of your Blue friends will give you the introduction you wish. Not that the Blues are doing so well," he added sweetly. "Green, however..."

"Nero belongs to the Greens," Justus snapped. "No one dares award too many prizes to the other racing companies. The Blue faction did well enough when Claudius was alive." For a moment he dwelt on the pettiness of the young Emperor and his blatant favor for his racing corporation. The factions were quite old, he reminded himself, and had survived longer than the Emperors.

"Of course," Petronius said soothingly. "I merely thought you might heed a gentle warning." He waited for Justus to interrupt, and when this did not happen, he went on, "If you must remain with the Blues, be a little circumspect with Nero. His devotion to the Greens is real, you know."

Justus all but snorted. "A foolish desire left over from his childhood."

"He still wears his hair like a charioteer," Petronius said. "His interest, believe me, is not idle. If you cannot respect that, think twice about trying to win his favor." He toyed with the silk tassel that hung from the knotted cord around his waist. "Was there anything else, Senator?"

While Claudius had been Caesar, no one would have dared to speak to Justus in that tone, but the world had changed. Justus tried to swallow his wrath. "Not of immediate importance, no. I am, naturally, grateful for the time you've given me."

Petronius doubted it, but nodded an offhanded acknowledgment. He waited for Justus to rise so he could bring this annoying interview to an end.

"There is one thing..." Justus said with a deliberately casual wave of his hand.

"I thought there might be." Petronius swallowed a sigh. "What is it, Senator? I regret that I haven't much more time to spare."

As if in response to a cue, Artemidorus hurried into the atrium. "Master, forgive my interruption, but the Greek pantomimes are here."

"Take them to my reception room, will you, Artemidorus? I won't be much longer. If they want to prepare themselves, they may use the solarium." He looked back at Justus. "What else was it you wanted?"

"By the Balls of Mars!..." Justus forced himself to stop this outburst. "Forgive me. I was impetuous." He grabbed at his spread knees through the folds of his toga. "The matter is, well, somewhat delicate."

"I would hardly have thought myself worthy of your confidence," Petronius remarked, anticipating the request that was to come.

"I'm not a young man," Justus said heavily. "No, not any longer. Yet I have a young wife." He paused portentously. "She is a creature of...appetites. The young so often are. I find that my energy is not what it was..."

Petronius felt an unaccustomed disgust as he recalled all the whispers he had heard about Cornelius Justus Silius. "If you mean that you like to watch hired men rape your wife so that you can satisfy yourself with her"--he ignored the sputtered objection that Justus began--"you must ask others to help you."

Justus was now too angry to guard his tongue. "A man with your reputation! Telling me that you will not pander to my--"

"I am the official arbiter of elegance, Senator. Elegance. Paying your gladiators to brutalize Atta Olivia Clemens hardly comes under my jurisdiction. Speak to that secutor of yours, that German you were telling me about, Arnax or whatever his name is. He should suit your purposes." This upsurge of indignation was as startling to Petronius as it was to Justus. With an effort of will he maintained his languid pose. "Believe me, Senator, I have no wish to interfere between man and wife. You must excuse me." He rose in one quick, graceful motion.

Justus remained seated a bit longer. "What you said of me is not true," he muttered.

"Isn't it? The rumors of Rome are always full of scandal. No doubt you've been maligned." There was very little conviction in his words. He looked down at the Senator. "I really must leave you now, Justus. The pantomimes are waiting."

"Effeminate Greeks, with their paints and postures! They might as well be priests of Attis!" He crossed his large, hard arms over his chest.

"I feel I should remind you that Nero admires Greek pantomimes almost as much as he admires charioteers." The words were soft, almost caressing.

"A passing fancy," Justus said firmly. "He is not yet thirty. Give him a few years and he will put such things behind him."

"And if he does not?" Petronius expected no answer and started away across the atrium, pausing only to add, "When you know more of your plans for the Games, come again and I will find some of the pantomimes you despise for entertainments between contests. Many of the Roman people share the Emperor's enthusiasm for them. There was a riot the last time this troupe performed."

Reluctantly Justus stood, displeased at the way the conversation had gone. "It will not be necessary."

"If you are determined to return to Nero's favor, you will learn otherwise." He picked one of the flowering branches from the peach tree in a wooden tub by the fountain, and the tintinnabulum shook its little phallic chimes at him.

"Are there other Games planned for the summer?" Justus hated to ask the question, particularly of this soft-spoken man. He had to know what competition he would have.

"Not in the Circus Maximus, in July. Four days of Games should be a welcome diversion, and you might be able to overshadow the Games of Italicus Fulcinius Gracchus." His smile was snide. "However, I doubt you will. With your permission, Senator." In the next moment he was gone from the atrium.

Justus glared after Petronius, wishing he could pursue the man and lash him as he would lash an insolent slave. The thought of that satisfaction brought a wolfish light to his curiously light brown eyes. There would be time for such revenge after he had gained the good wishes of Nero. A pity that the Emperor was so greatly influenced by Petronius. Perhaps, he thought, in time Nero would allow himself to be guided by wiser, more experienced men. He glanced scathingly at the slaves who had come into the atrium bearing bowls of spice-scented water. He rose slowly and walked toward the far end of the atrium, where Artemidorus waited to escort him from the house. At the fountain he paused, thinking what satisfaction it would give him to spit into the perfumed water. There would be time enough for that later, he promised himself, after the summer, after his Games, when the Emperor would seek him out and do him honor.

With this thought to cheer him he strode through the peach trees toward Artemidorus.

TEXT OF A LETTER FROM THE GREEK STONEMASON MNASTYDOS TO THE EMPEROR NERO.

To my glorious Emperor on the twentieth day of October in the 816th Year of the City, hail!

Too much honor have you given me in allowing me to address you directly, O Nero, but as you have charged me to inform you of my thoughts and observations concerning the damage of the terrible fire that swept through the city at the height of summer, I will do all that is in my power to obey you.

The destruction, as anyone who has walked through the rubble in the streets knows, is calamitous. Many of the shops near the Circus Maximus cannot be replaced in any way, for the fire burned there too fiercely and too long. Their loss, however, is minor compared to the catastrophe that has been visited upon so many of our noblest and oldest buildings. The treasures you specifically asked about, in the old Temple of Minerva, are wholly lost. It grieves me to tell you this, for I know in what esteem you held those fine trophies. The building itself is no longer safe to enter, like so many others. It is true that its columns still stand, but they are no longer sound. A hard winter, long rains or a heavy storm might be all that is needed to topple the whole. Since you have asked that I give you my opinion, it is this: take down the Temple of Minerva while the marble may yet be salvaged, and use it for your own splendid new palace. We cannot restore the temple to its full glory, but the marble, while it is intact, may be used again. It is fortunate that the Temple was not in the heart of the fire, or the marble would have been ruined as well as the treasures of the Temple.

The war prizes you mentioned have melted down into bits of twisted metal. One or two of these have been recovered, but they have been cracked and blackened by the fire. As you requested, I have taken those that are intact to the foreigner Ragoczy Saint-Germain Franciscus at his villa outside the walls of the city. I have his assurances that if there is anything that may be done to save them, he will do it. He has already repaired the three alabaster urns that were taken to him, and with such skill that it is difficult to see where the fire touched them.

The extra rows of benches installed in the Circus Maximus for the Games of Cornelius Justus Silius have fallen. Without them the seats will accommodate no more than sixty thousand. It might be wise to build them up again, since the crowds were so great at his Games that every seat was filled and we heard that all the aisles were packed. The gigantic elk from Britannia that were not killed in the venation died in the fire. It was a shame to lose those magnificent animals. Silius was fortunate indeed to be able to show them in the arena, and would have realized a great price for them if the fire had not claimed them as its own.

With your permission, I will instruct my fellow stonemasons to remove any usable stone from the buildings damaged by the fire so that your architects may inspect it and select that which is suitable for your palace. The rest may go to repairs of the Circus Maximus, so that the Great Games may continue. Should you require more speed, I know of two groups of stonemasons, slaves of your esteemed Senator Marcellus Sixtus Tredis and of your great general Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo. These stonemasons are most highly skilled in their work, and would undoubtedly exert themselves most mightily on your behalf. Certainly neither the Senator nor the general would begrudge you the use of their stonemasons.

The Jewish prisoners who have been set to this task are useless, as they have no experience with fine marbles. Set them elsewhere, O Emperor, where their skills and strength may be of use, and find us more Greek stonemasons, or you will lose even more of your beautiful marbles through their ignorance.

A few of the insulae that were thought lost may be rebuilt, should their owners deem it worthwhile, but I have already reported to them on that business, and await their answers. Should it be your desire that we turn our attention to those buildings, we will do it at once with all our hearts. If you do not give us orders to the contrary, we will set to work rebuilding the insulae upon the request of the owners.

Most humbly I thank you for hearing my report. It is an undeserved honor to address you, O my Emperor. When you gave the order that freed me, you made me the more your slave. Now that you have asked for this report, when you have so many around you of greater skill and higher station than I, my devotion is rekindled in an already ardent breast. Any task you require, great or small, you have only to ask it of me and I will surely do it, in gratitude of the deference you have been pleased to show me.

Unto death I am your man?

Mnastydos
Stonemason of Rhodes
(by the hand of Eugenius,
the scribe at the Temple of Mercury)

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