Vestal Virgin: Suspense in Ancient Rome, page 1part #1 of Suspense in Ancient Rome Series
Table of Contents
SUSPENSE IN ANCIENT ROME
Copyright © 2010 by Suzanne Tyrpak
Cover art copyright © 2010 by Jeroen ten Berge
All rights reserved.
Although I did extensive research in order to write VESTAL VIRGIN, the book is a work of fiction. If the characters have any similarity to people who have lived in the past 1,000 years, that is coincidental.
For more information about the author, please visit http://www.facebook.com/pages/Suzanne-Tyrpak/144232238928903.
For more information about the artist, please visit www.jeroentenberge.com
Interior book layout and formatting: TERyvisions www.teryvisions.com
Published in the United States of America
for My Father
I’m always on the lookout for a great read, and nothing engrosses like well-researched historical fiction with a killer of a story and characters you both love and hate. All that and more lies waiting in the following pages of Suzanne Tyrpak’s phenomenal debut, VESTAL VIRGIN.
Picture this: a gripping story set against ancient Rome and peopled with the major players of the time...a prophet named Paul, our hero, Elissa—a vestal virgin sworn to chastity—and of course, the psychopathic, megalomaniac Nero.
To say more would spoil the joy of discovering all that this novel has up its sleeve, so just trust me...you’ve never read classic Rome done like this, a fully-evoked world, meticulously researched, yet compulsively readable.
Only do yourself a favor and don’t start reading until you’ve got some time on your hands.
Because you won’t be able to stop.
—Blake Crouch, December 2010
Vestal Virgin takes place A.D. 63-64. My research includes extensive reading, two trips to Italy, consulting with scholars, and a life-long fascination with ancient cultures. The story is rooted in history, and although some of these events did occur, and some are conjecture, the story is fiction. Any resemblance to people currently alive, or those who have been alive in the last 1900 years, is coincidence.
Main Characters Elissa Rubria Honoria—Vestal Virgin (there is a record of a Vestal Virgin whose family name (gens) was Rubria
Marcus—Elissa's brother, an intellectual and former friend of Nero's (fictional)
Angerona—Vestal Virgin (fictional)
Olfonius Tigellinus—Praetorian Prefect and advisor to Nero
Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—Emperor of the Roman Empire, the princeps, Pontifex Maximus (high priest)
Agrippina—"The Younger," Roman Empress and mother of Nero, married to the Emperor Claudius, sister of the Emperor Caligula
Gallus Justinus—an Equestrian (knight) and war hero (fictional)
Akeem—an Egyptian slave, servant to Justinus (fictional)
Lucan—a poet, and nephew of Seneca
Mother Amelia—Vestal Maxima, the high vestal (fictional)
Honoratus Rubrius—Elissa's father, member of the aristocracy, a senator (fictional)
Constantina Rubria Honoria—Elissa's mother (fictional)
Flavia Rubria Honoria—Elissa's sister (fictional)
Paul of Tarsus—the prophet Paul, a follower of "The Way," and Jesus
Poppaea Sabina—Empress of Rome, Nero's wife
The Silent Dead
I give you tears, and words of sorrow at our parting,
but this ground cares not for my salt, the dead remain silent.
Fate stole you, took you from me, heart and soul,
beloved brother, dead, long before you grew old,
these rituals I perform, were passed down from our ancestors,
I weep for you, the dead, for tears are my inheritance.
The Kalends of October
Year IX, reign of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
…though they may condemn me, the words I write are heartfelt. I no longer trust Nero, no longer trust the gods. I don’t fear death, but life. This life devoid of passion. My fate has never been my own—my destiny decided ten years ago when I was pledged to thirty years of chastity. Keep this letter close, for I trust only you.
She set down the stylus and read what she’d written. Could a person be condemned merely for thinking?
Through the narrow window of her chamber, a breeze brought the scent of roses, the last of autumn. Soon it would be winter, but sequestered within the House of Vestals the world seemed seasonless.
“Elissa—” a voice called from beyond the doorway’s curtain.
She snatched the papyrus, thrust it into the bodice of her stola, and turned on her stool. Angerona, her fellow priestess, swept open the curtain. Unfettered by her veil, her auburn tresses fell over her shoulders in a wild cascade of curls. Beside her, Elissa felt small and dark. She ran her tongue over her teeth, the tip lingering on her deformity.
“I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Angerona’s face was flushed, which only made her prettier. She sounded breathless, “I thought I’d find you working in the garden then I checked the library—”
“Why aren’t you at the agora?” Elissa wiped ink from the stylus, replaced it in the jar with others, hoping Angerona wouldn’t ask what she’d been writing. “All you’ve talked about for days is that gold bracelet. I thought you’d be haggling with the merchant. Did you finally get your price?”
“So you haven’t heard—” Angerona’s voice trailed off.
“All of Rome is whispering. I thought, by now, you would have known.” She touched Elissa’s shoulder, and something in her touch made Elissa shiver. “Your brother has been charged with treason.”
“Treason?” The word passed Elissa’s lips, but didn’t register.
“They say, Marcus has been plotting Nero’s assassination. They say—”
“They say!” Elissa stood, t
“My source is reliable.”
Angerona shook her head.
Elissa seldom raised her voice, but now she did, “Gossip will be your ruin, Angerona. Vicious lies.”
Angerona looked close to tears. She reached into the folds of her stola and withdrew a scroll. “This came for you by messenger.”
Hands trembling, Elissa broke the imperial seal, read aloud:
“I, NERO CLAUDIUS AUGUSTUS GERMANICUS, PRINCEPS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, BELOVED OF APOLLO, SUMMON THE VESTAL VIRGIN, PRIESTESS ELISSA RUBRIA HONORIA, TO WITNESS HER BROTHER’S DEATH—”
Her mouth went dry. The gods had acted swiftly, punishing her hubris. “There must be a mistake,” she said. “A Roman citizen, the son of a senator, can’t be treated like a common criminal.”
“I’m sorry,” Angerona said, tears spilling from her eyes.
“First your father, now my brother—Nero holds himself above the law.” Elissa took a breath and willed her heart to beat more slowly. “I’ve got to hurry.”
“You’re going to the circus?”
“The emperor requests my presence. Perhaps Nero’s forgotten how my family has supported him.”
“You can’t go unescorted—”
“Let’s speak to the Vestal Maxima,” Angerona said, “request she file a petition and ask your brother’s life be spared. Even Nero can’t refuse a vestal’s intervention on behalf of a prisoner—”
“There’s no time. Marcus fights at noon.”
“I’ll call for the coach—”
“I’ll walk. It’s faster.”
“At least, change your robe. Your hem is stained from pulling weeds.”
“I don’t want to be recognized.”
Angerona thrust white slippers at Elissa. “Your shoes.”
“Yes.” Elissa slid them on her feet, barely noticed. She had to get to Nero soon, and with no pompous retinue. Digging through her cedar chest, she found her oldest palla. She flung the shawl over her head and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“You look like a beggar,” Angerona said.
“Good. No one will notice me.”
Elissa ripped open the doorway’s curtain. The cubicles where the six virgins slept stood empty, the inhabitants occupied elsewhere with their work—invoking blessings for the sick, copying documents, tending the sacred fire. She glanced at the closed door of the Vestal Maxima’s private chambers. At this hour Mother Amelia would be busy contracting wills and legal documents, conferring with dignitaries from the farthest reaches of the empire, downstairs in the library.
Angerona followed at Elissa’s heels. “At least take a lictor.”
“No bodyguard. I don’t want to be recognized.”
“You must follow protocol—”
Lifting her soiled hem, Elissa hurried down the marble stairway. Sun poured through the open ceiling of the atrium, dancing on the central pool. Serving women, carrying baskets heaped with linen, made their way along the pillared hallway and out into the courtyard where vats of water boiled. Laundry day kept the household busy—and made it easy to escape.
She opened a side door, which lead out to the street.
Angerona stepped in front of her. “You can’t go to the Circus Maximus alone—”
“Come with me.”
Elissa and Angerona faced each other, their breath mingling, their thoughts transparent. Torn from their families at an early age, bound by vows, they were closer than blood sisters.
Angerona had lost her glow. Her tear-streaked face looked pale as leaden powder. Of course she wouldn’t come. For all her bluster and emotion, she possessed a strong instinct for self-preservation. And to confront Nero bordered on insanity.
Elissa brushed a damp curl away from Angerona’s forehead. “Don’t worry, sweet. Nero loved my brother once. I’ll remind him, and you know I can be convincing.”
“What shall I tell the Vestal Maxima?”
“Tell her what you want.” Elissa’s laugh sounded hollow. “Tell her I’ve accepted Nero’s invitation.”
She left Angerona gaping and walked briskly toward the forum.
On the far side of Palatine Hill, a mile from the House of Vestals, the urban mob squirmed on stone benches at the Circus Maximus. The chariot races had ended and clouds of grit settled on the arena, coating the spectators. Women poured out of the gates leaving men to watch the afternoon’s more gruesome entertainment.
Horns squealed and a water organ moaned, announcing the procession of gladiators.
The Retiarii carried tridents and nets; Thracians, square shields and swords; Secutors, oval shields and daggers. Schooled in combat, massive in their builds, gladiators stood a chance for victory. A chance to live.
Not so for Marcus. He would face wild beasts unarmed. A death more shameful than crucifixion.
Beneath the spectator stalls, he waited to be summoned. Grasping the wooden bars, he stared out of his cage and recalled the fate of a prisoner of war from Germania. Destined to fight the lions, the captured soldier had gone to the latrines—a stinking row of holes in a long bench—and, using the stick meant for wiping away excrement, he rammed the salty sponge into his throat.
Beasts or suicide. The only choice.
Out in the amphitheater the crowd stamped their feet, shaking Marcus to his bones. He prayed he wouldn’t shit himself.
Wooden tiers towered over the arena and held more than 150,000 people. As noon approached, the spectators devoured goat cheese and barley bread, apples and pickled eggs—while they waited for dessert.
“Answer when you hear your name,” the lanista shouted.
Taskmaster of gladiators, the lanista filled his purse by treating men like animals. Society did not respect him, although his barrel of a stomach proved he ate lavishly.
“Marcus Rubrius Honoratus.”
Marcus slid his hands along the wooden bars, splinters prickling his palms. His back was broad from wrestling, his arms knotted with muscle from lifting lead weights in the gymnasium, but he was no gladiator. His thoughts turned to Socrates. Soon he’d have the chance to test that great philosopher’s theory of immortality, to learn firsthand if his soul would perish or cross into the Plain of Oblivion and continue to the River of Forgetfulness.
The lanista unlocked the cage. Tugging Marcus by a leash, he dragged him into the torch-lit hallway and ordered him to kneel. Squaring his shoulders, Marcus reminded himself of the dignity with which Socrates had faced his execution.
“I said, kneel.” The lanista cracked his whip, and two brutes forced Marcus to his knees amid steaming camel dung. “Rome has no tolerance for treason.”
The barbed whip scored welts across his back.
Marcus clenched his teeth, refusing to register the pain, searching his mind for words of wisdom. That which destroys and corrupts is evil, Socrates had said. That which preserves and benefits is good.
Above him, in the amphitheater, the crowd roared for blood.
* * * * *
The sun crept toward noon.
Elissa climbed the road leading from the forum, the soles of her leather slippers slick against the flagstones. Although the temperature was cool and left no doubt that it was autumn, a rivulet of sweat ran down her face. She pushed onward, glancing at the seven hills as she reached the pinnacle. A patchwork of terra-cotta rooftops gave way to parkland girded by six miles of gray tufa blocks. Beyond the Servian wall, golden fields and olive groves offered the promise of freedom. A false promise, Elissa thought—all Romans were slave to Nero.
“Jupiter,” she said, tears choking her voice, “Ruler of the heavens, protector of the empire, I beg you to spare my brother’s life.”
She swiped her eyes, angry with herself for showing weakness. Ten years ago, when she had been wrenched
The Vestal Maxima sat in the coach. Her voice floated from beneath snowy veils, “Are you frightened, child?”
Trembling, tears streaming down her face, Elissa shook her head. Through the coach’s window, she saw her parents. Her new position was an honor. She would be rich and powerful, but her parents’ faces appeared solemn as if witnessing a funeral.
The wheels of the coach squeaked, began to roll.
Elissa craned her neck in order to keep her brother in her sight. He ran alongside the coach, yelling, “Bring her back!”
“Marcus!” she called out to him, until her throat was raw.
“Drive on,” the Vestal Maxima ordered the coachman. “The sooner we depart, the sooner she’ll forget.”
But Elissa never forgot that day, never forgot crying out to Marcus as he disappeared within a cloud of dust.
Redoubling her pace, she hurried toward the Circus Maximus.
Marcus was no traitor. The idea was preposterous. He had loved Nero, only too well. His fault had been to question the princeps, attempting to steer him away from disaster. Hopes had been high for Nero when at age seventeen he’d come into power. Initially, advisors kept him on an even keel, but now Burris was dead, Seneca banished, Agrippina murdered, and Nero charted his own course.
If only I had prayed more, Elissa thought, perhaps the gods would have protected Marcus. She wondered if her hubris had led to her brother’s plight, her questioning of the gods’ power—the damning words she’d written. She reached into her stola, seeking the letter, words she must destroy before they wreaked more havoc. As her fingers touched the papyrus, two boys raced around a corner, forcing her into the gutter and a stream of putrid water.