Eboracum (York), Brittania

AD 260


Sextus Terentius Varro adjusted his sword belt and glanced at his reflection in the bronze mirror. It’d been a while since he’d worn anything else but his equite toga, and it took getting used to seeing himself in uniform again, this time as tribune - tribunus equitus.

He should be grateful.

His father had paid a lot of money, and favours too probably, to purchase his commission into the XX Victrix. It had been his old legion, as he never tired of reminding his son.

Sextus rolled his eyes. If they were expecting him to be anything like his father, they were in for a surprise. He was nothing like his pater. Which is why he wasn’t surprised to learn the unit he was assigned to was sending a detachment of troops to some god-forsaken outpost on the Wall.

He was sure his father had had a hand in that.

Yeah, he should be grateful.

‘I don’t want you to go!’ His little sister Tia, latched onto his waist, one hand dangling her favourite doll. At eight years of age, she was still too innocent in the ways of the world to know why he was being sent away.

He crouched down to peer into her eyes, large dark brown ones like their mother’s. They’d begun to fill with tears. ‘Hey, you won’t miss me. You’ve got Julia here,’ he indicated her doll, ‘and Tadius and Saena,’ children of the household slaves, ‘to play with.’

Tia sniffed and wiped her nose with her sleeve. ‘I ‘spose. But you tell jokes and make me laugh when Papa is so serious.’

Yeah, and didn’t he know it.

If not for their mother telling him otherwise, he would’ve sworn Father had been born wearing a frown. It had etched permanent lines onto his brow. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen him smile.

‘Tell you what. What if I promise to send you a joke every week?’ At least her laughter would cheer up the dreary place.

‘Promise?’ Her sweet face lit up as if he’d just given her an armful of Saturnalia presents.

‘Make sure they’re clean ones.’ His mother, Cornelia, stood outside his room, the morning sunshine creating a halo around her dark curls. Her smile alone could lighten any dark mood.

He’d often wondered if she wasn’t a demigod, for how else could she have put up with the dour, austere man she’d been wed to.

‘Mother.’ He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her fingertips.

She smoothed his hair from off his forehead. ‘Oh Sextus! I’ll miss you, but your father’s right. This commission will do you a world of good.’

‘Nothing like fighting barbarians to make a man of me, right?’

She sighed, and beckoned to one of the slaves hovering nearby. ‘Take Tia to her lessons.’

Tia blinked away more tears and crushed her face to her brother’s, giving him a long, wet kiss on his cheek before running from the room, the slave traipsing after her.

He remained crouched a little longer, his gaze following her out. It would be at least a year before he’d see his little sister again.

‘Your father means well for you, Sextus.’ Cornelia seated herself on the edge of his bed and smoothed her long, light woollen robe over her knees. ‘This last year, you’ve been idling, with no sense of purpose in your life, drinking too much … and saying things best kept to yourself.’

He threw his head back and glared at the red-coloured ceiling. Okay, so he’d said some stupid things but it’d been enough to get a reprimand from the chief magistrate of the city.

‘I was drunk.’

‘That’s no excuse. If you had been anyone less than Gnaeus Terentius Varro’s son, you could have been executed!’ She closed her eyes and covered her hand with her mouth as a shudder racked her body.

Sextus’s heart lurched. He threw himself onto his knees at his mother’s feet and grasped her hand in his. ‘Mother, please …’

‘Your father loves you. Don’t ever doubt that. He called in a lot of favours to protect you and get you out of the city. And whether you like it or not, Postumus is emperor of Britain and Gaul. Gnaeus has sworn his allegiance. Do not endanger us, Sextus, I beg you.’ Her voice shook.

That broke him. Sextus hung his head as a pang of guilt gripped his heart.

Her eyes glistened as she lifted his chin to meet her gaze. ‘You always were an impetuous child; acting before thinking. Isn’t it time that changed?’

He hated to admit to it, but this time his abandoned carousing and loose tongue had endangered those he loved most in the world, and no damn emperor was worth that.

May the gods curse them all!

He kissed her cheek then stood and reached for his helmet on the table by his bed.

‘Let me do that.’ Cornelia placed the helmet on his head and fastened the strap beneath his chin, her hand lingering there as if reluctant to let go.

‘I’ll do you proud. I promise.’ And unless any of the fickle gods decided to have sport with him, Sextus Terentius had no intention of breaking his word.


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