Read the opening chapter of Spartacus: Morituri
Check out the first chapter from Spartacus: Morituri (PLEASE NOTE THIS EXCERPT CONTAINS ADULT LANGUAGE)
The girl was beautiful, but not beautiful enough. Batiatus flicked the fly-whisk about his neck, grimacing at the smell.
“Jupiter’s cock, Albanus,” he muttered, “would your gods find offense if you cleansed them before display?”
Albanus, a greasy little Syrian with beady black eyes, gave an elaborate shrug.
“I provide private viewing as favor to valued customer. Such visits require preparations made in haste. Had I taken time to make scent sweeter, wind might have carried fragrance to others seeking purchase.”
Batiatus sighed. “Would that the gods deliver a gale presently and sweep away smell of shit. They instead continue to rain it upon me, adding to the pile you stack before me.”
“I seek only to serve the House of Batiatus, which stands foremost in all Capua. For no other would I favour to parade wares before bidding begins at market.”
Batiatus gave a disbelieving grunt. To the naked girl before him he said, “Turn around.”
She stared, terrified, looking first at Batiatus and then at Albanus.
Batiatus glared accusingly at the Syrian slave trader.
“Does she not possess enough common tongue to understand even that? Where does this one spawn from?”
“From exotic soil, an island the Greeks know as Thule. Far beyond bounds of known lands.”
“Your mind concocts elaborate providence to burnish tainted goods. And the telling of it tumbles like shit from mouth, adding to the stench.” Batiatus flapped a hand. “It is arduous chore to break in one such as this.”
“But sweet in the breaking,” Albanus countered, a lascivious twinkle in his eye. “Her eyes tell the tale. A girl who is fresh of years, knowing nothing of the world. Her teeth intact, skin unblemished and cunt like a virgin’s.”
“My wife lacks time to impart instruction, to see one so raw shaped to proper form.” Batiatus waved the fly-whisk dismissively and moved along the line of standing women.
Dust hung in the air, illuminated by the beat of the afternoon sun. The stone-walled yard in which they all stood seemed hot enough to bake bread.
Albanus frowned. He stepped aside and clicked his fingers at a dark-haired boy who stood nearby, his skin oiled and shining. The boy came forward with an earthenware cup brimming with red liquid.
“Quench thirst while you peruse under hot sun, good Batiatus.”
Batiatus took the cup, drank, and then grimaced. The wine was sour, unrefined. He swirled it around in his mouth for a moment before spitting it out. The liquid lay like a bloodstain in the sand at his feet, reminding him of the other errands of the day, all as yet undone and baying for attention.
“This piss does nothing but deliver sting to throat. It fails to distract from promise to exhibit something of note.”
The Syrian tilted his head to one side like a bird.
A young girl came running into the sanded yard and fell to her knees before him.
“Dominus!” she cried. “Additional guest stands impatient for admittance.”
Batiatus raised an eyebrow.
“It seems private viewing bears different meaning in scheming mind, Albanus. Though mine does stand impressed that you count so many as ‘honoured friend.’”
“I beg good Batiatus’s indulgence at unfortunate misstep,” Albanus sputtered. “I depart for but a moment and promise more of fine stock to exhibit. Patience will find reward.”
Batiatus bowed slightly, though inside he seethed with anger and curiosity. As the Syrian scuttled off, clapping his hands and shouting for his steward, so Batiatus beckoned to the man who stood at the wall behind him, cloaked despite the heat.
“Ashur, linger in the heat. I would venture inside and see who else seeks business with Albanus this morning. ”
Ashur’s dark-bearded face betrayed nothing.
It was much cooler in the stone-flagged corridors of the house. The place was airy, large and well made, but Albanus’s taste in wall painting ran to the garish. Batiatus smirked as he thought of the new mosaics presently going up on the walls of his own triclinium. Soon he and his guests would dine surrounded by the most sublime—
“This way please,” an attending boy said with bowed head, gesturing to a bright doorway.
“You usher me to garden.”
The boy nodded, not raising his eyes.
“Not a common place for viewing slaves,” Batiatus mused.
The boy scampered off. Batiatus slapped his neck with the fly-whisk in growing irritation. The light blinded him for a second. He heard the ripple of a fountain, and smelled damp earth, and the heady perfume of plants and herbs. He recognized thyme and lavender, and felt soft grass underfoot, lush and green from the recent rains.
Lucretia would covet this, he thought. Perhaps he should consider a garden. The peristylium is not nearly enough.
He stepped forward, passing once again into the shade offered by a fig tree. There was a girl sitting on a stone bench several feet away, dressed in blue silk. Tyrian silk, the stuff worth its weight in gold. A free woman, of some breeding, he thought. Batiatus was about to turn around and make an exit, when he saw the collar about the girl’s neck. After a moment’s surprise, he sauntered forward, and at once the girl rose.
The silk was cut in a chiton, Greek-style, drawn in at the waist but not stitched along the sides. Batiatus saw the swell of one creamy breast and let his gaze trail down her torso. Her skin was as white as that of a high-born lady and her hair as black as a Hispanian bull. She had blue eyes, bright as sapphire, and her face was so flawless that he felt an instant, fierce hunger. He wanted to touch her, to explore those features, and the white skin under the silk.
“What’s your name,” he said.
“Athenais,” she replied, bowing her head. She was Greek then.
“You are Albanus’s property?”
“I am. I have been in his house but six days.”
“Where do you hail from?”
“I am Athenian.” Her Latin was flawless, but for the lilting Greek accent.
“A distinguished birthplace. You possess learning?” he asked.
“Good Batiatus, I see you discover exquisite flower growing in garden!” Albanus came striding into the garden, arms spread wide, with a pair of strange men in tow.
“I assured reward for patience did I not?” he continued. “Measured against her beauty, the rest of my stock seems herd of Lusitanian mares. Ah, but I forget manners. Introductions are needed. Batiatus, I present most recent acquaintance, Hieronymus. A man of rank, highly regarded in Sicilia. Hieronymus, I present Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, finest lanista in Capua. His ludus filled to brim with beasts of great skill in the arena. Spartacus, the Bringer of Rain and Champion of Capua, among them.”
Batiatus bowed slightly, the stiff-necked bow he had seen senators of Rome perform when they wanted to accord both acknowledgement and their own superiority with one small gesture.
Hieronymus was bearded, like many Greeks, and he wore a woollen peplos despite the warmth of the day. He was a large man, brown-skinned like a hazelnut, with olive-black eyes, and a ready smile which Batiatus instantly distrusted. He wore gold earrings, which no Roman would ever countenance, and Batiatus could almost smell the stink of coin coming off him. A rich man, even if only a provincial.
Although Batiatus barely allowed his eyes to flicker from the Sicel’s face, it was the figure who entered silently in Hieronymus’s wake who most interested him. Batiatus had never seen his like. He was darker skinned than his master, and clothed in a loose-fitting robe that seemed to be woven from multi-colored strips of some coarse material, like horsehair. The robe, tied at the waist by a black sash, was open at the front to expose a chest and torso deeply scarred with what appeared to be sigils and runic symbols, the origin of which Batiatus could only guess at.
It was the man’s head, however, that was the most astonishing and unsettling element of his appearance. Like his upper body, his cheeks, forehead, throat and the crown of his hairless head were similarly scarred with esoteric symbols. The centre of his lip was pierced with a gold ring, which matched the ones in his master’s ears. His eyes were as pale as ass’s milk, suggesting blindness, and his thin, almost purple lips were in constant motion, as though he murmured silently to himself, revealing glimpses of a tongue which Batiatus could have sworn was riven in the centre, forked like that of a snake.
“Any with interest in glory of the arena could not but be familiar with the House of Batiatus,” Hieronymus was saying, recapturing the lanista’s attention. “My own interest in the games nudges toward strong affection. I have even been moved to sponsor my own gladiators on occasion. Though merely in the provinces, far from the profession’s beating heart in Capua. Where I had good fortune to witness good Batiatus’s Thracian triumph over the legendary Theokoles. The event a pinnacle for any lanista.”
Batiatus bowed again, a little less frostily this time. In the corner of his eye, Hieronymus’s attendant was a dark shape, like an earthbound rain cloud, the girl Athenais a blue shimmer on his other side.
“When you find yourself free, you must honor my house with your presence,” he said to Hieronymus. “My wife and I would delight in hosting a man sharing in such passion. Unfortunately I must take leave at present. Pressing business awaits. I would take the girl from your hands, Albanus and would make arrangement to complete the transaction soon.” He turned to depart.
Albanus licked his lips. “Nothing would please more than to see her sold to you. Our friendship ever upon my mind. But good Hieronymus expresses equal interest in purchasing the girl.”
Batiatus smiled. “We appear to stand alike in many interests. Private confines of Albanus’s garden expand to become crowded market.” He ran through the calculations in his head, studied the girl again, noting the exquisite line of her neck, and the way her nipples imprinted themselves on the thin silk. When the breeze pressed it against her flesh he did not need to see her naked, for every dimple in her body was on display.
“It seems crime to speak of coin towards such exquisite creature,” Hieronymus murmured. He touched the girl’s chin, raising her head slightly. The heavy black hair fell back to reveal a pink ear, as translucent as a seashell.
“Five hundred sesterces,” Batiatus said. He felt a quickening of anger, like he always did before the arena. This was the same—this, also, was a form of combat.
“Five hundred?” Albanus asked. “I take heart to know our friendship stands secure enough against such jest.”
“The sum equal to half year’s pay for a legionary. Hardly a jest.”
“One thousand,” Hieronymus said, with a little shrug, as if apologizing.
Batiatus bared his teeth, and turned it into a smile.
“Fifteen hundred.” It was more, far more than he had come here to pay, but he was not about to be outbid in his own city by a fucking Greek with rings in his ears and a creature of Hades crouching at his heels.
Hieronymus sighed slightly. He ran a long-nailed finger down the girl’s torso, and she stiffened under the touch. For a moment, all three men were staring at her. The blush rose in her white skin, her eyes averted. Suddenly Batiatus knew he wanted this girl kneeling before him, those rose-pink lips around his cock. He had to have her.
“Two thousand,” Hieronymus said.
“Three,” Batiatus riposted. He could feel sweat in the small of his back.
“Four,” Hieronymus said with a cat-like smile.
Batiatus looked at Albanus. The Syrian’s face was ashine with cupidity. Clearly, he had planned this. Batiatus felt fury burn in his gullet. He could not—he must not—go further in this.
“Five thousand,” he said at last, unable to help himself.
Hieronymus opened his hands in a gesture of apology, and for a moment Batiatus’s heart leapt. But then the Greek said quietly, “Six thousand.”
And it was over.
“That goat-fucking Syrian pimp. The festering cock gave performance worthy of amphitheater,” Batiatus raged.
He shoved his way through the crowded street, shouting to be heard over the clamor of noise emanating from the open-fronted shops and the clatter of wooden wheels in the cobbled ruts of the roadway. Ashur limped quickly at his master’s side, grimacing and gripping his crippled leg. A former gladiator in Batiatus’s ludus, he had been crippled in the arena by the Gaul, Crixus—another of Batiatus’s gladiators. Ashur had served as his master’s book-keeper and sometime henchman ever since that defeat.
“My presence cast merely for inflation of price,” Batiatus continued. “I offer to put coin in Albanus’s hand only to see him maneuver larger amount into the other tucked behind his back. May the gods rot his balls off. Ashur, tell something of import about that Greek maggot or by Juno’s cunt I’ll have your good leg mangled to match the crippled one.”
“If dominus would care to slow pace,” Ashur gasped. “Ashur could turn from distracting pain to sharing of knowledge on crowded streets.”
Batiatus glared at him. “Very well. Perhaps yet another appeal to my patience will finally reap reward.”
They halted in the lee of a tufa-block building, standing still whilst the torrent of humanity passed by in the heat and dust of the street. Ashur had a dark, feline face alight with intelligence and cunning. But there was more than good humor in his eyes. He had known murder, in and out of the arena, and he was as good with numbers as any hired scribe.
“Words were loosened from one of the Syrian’s men.”
“With my coin I trust,” Batiatus grunted.
“One sesterce, dominus, an old coin, nicked and bent—”
“Enough. Just tell me what it bought.” Batiatus interrupted.
Ashur paused, half-raising his hands, as if to deliver news of great import.
“Hieronymus is very rich with coin, dominus.”
Batiatus gave him a withering look. “You offered coin for knowledge easily gained by turning eyes on the man.”
Quickly Ashur said, “He has made purchase of house by river Volturnus, and much land along with it.”
Now Batiatus looked thoughtful. “He seeks permanent residence in Capua. What else?”
“He profits as money changer in the east, in Ephesus or Pergamon. Powerful men counted among his clients. One reported to sit high in the Senate in Rome.”
Batiatus’s eyes lit up with interest. Here was a potential means to his own elevation.
“What is the elevated man’s name?” he demanded.
“Alas, Albanus’s man spoke nothing more of note, despite Ashur’s entreaties.”
Batiatus was disappointed. He gave a curt nod.
“And what of the dark creature attending the man with powerful friends?”
Ashur inclined his head to indicate his ignorance.
“Further investigation needed to glean such information, dominus.”
“Set yourself to it.” Batiatus sighed. “I would have revealing of that mystery as well as the names of Hieronymus’s powerful friends. A man doesn’t gain such friends without wiggling his fingers in assholes. Find out who enjoys the man’s tickling touch.”
Ashur nodded. “Hieronymus bears devotion to the arena, standing above whores or wine in estimation. Perhaps it lends path to discoveries.”
“Indeed, one that I had already considered traveling upon.” Batiatus’s eyes lit up and something like good humor stole across his face. “I shall gain from the thing that stands his vice and my profession. Your thoughts align with mine, Ashur.”
Ashur bowed slightly. “I think only of the House of Batiatus.”
Batiatus proffered, “It will continue to grant you coin for services rendered.”
“And to ply mouths that would share more of what we seek to know.” Batiatus paused to turn a thought over. “The Greek girl. Her years appear briefly touched by servitude, her dress more wrapping for gift than attire for slave.” Batiatus considered the memory of her. “I would know more of her.”
The two men dove back into the streaming mass of people that clogged the streets of Capua, two more faces in a sea of them.