Saturday, May 4, 2013

Insert Mutilated Bedsheet Dresses Here (part 2 of 5)

The Roman forum was one of the most crowded areas in the city. Surrounded by tall structures of stone and marble, it formed the gathering space of a majority of the population, as well as the location for some of the most important buildings in the Empire, including the Senate House, where much of the drama in the series was located. The area was a wide rectangle of ground swept by the feet of the slaves, citizens and senators that paced back and forth across it. A large colonnaded building made up a whole edge of the flagstone square, where all kinds of folk were coming and going. A bustling marketplace, complete with shouting grocers and their terrible grammar, interesting smells and a large fighting-cock ground set up in the corner, arranged itself around a tall column at one end.

It was in a quiet, dark street just behind the forum that the odd group of Society agents tumbled out. Michael, Phoenixia and Cristoph landed nimbly on their feet, while everyone else faceplanted spectacularly into the dusty ground.

"Achoo!" Ben wiped the dust from his nose, before looking up to see Cristoph snickering. "What's so funny?"

"Nothing," the ninja smirked. "Nothing at all."

"Behave, boys," Tash ordered, getting up and inspecting her knees. One had scraped through the fabric. "Everyone okay?"

"You really don't want me to answer that," Louise muttered, her eyes darting all over the alley, as though she expected Merle to jump out and ambush them.

"Where are we anyway?" Michael asked, peering out around the corner of the alley. He caught sight of the crowds of people pushing and pulling around the forum, and blinked. "Impressive..."

"The Roman Forum," Alice immediately launched into what sounded like a text book recital. "Home to some of the most important buildings in the city – mostly temples, to Jupiter, to Castor and Pollux, but it's also where the Senate meets," she gestured to several of the white-pillared buildings. "Also where most of the action in this series takes place..."

"Given the mounds of flower petals," Tash pointed to a group of slaves, sweeping up a pile of beautiful red petals into a pile that was taller than them. "I'd say this is episode ten or eleven of series one. Just after Caesar makes himself head of state. That's what the petals are for. The whole city had a five day long party."

The slaves suddenly scarpered, as an excitable Claire raced to the pile, throwing pinecones at the poor men's retreating backs. As soon as they were gone, she flopped backwards into the pile of petals, scattering them to the wind. After a second's hesitation, Rhia followed, the pair of them giggling as they threw the petals into the air and twirled around happily.

"Is making a spectacle of themselves like that wise?" Cristoph asked, watching Rhia's joy with a smile of his own regardless. Harriet snapped her fingers.

"That reminds me," she pulled out what looked like a handful of SEP fields, except they were the size of buttons rather than the usual alarm clock size. "Everyone who wears glasses, attach these to them...that include you two!" she called over to Rhia and Claire, who returned to the group, stuffing flower petals into their pockets. A pretty smell now wafted up from them both.

"When did they get this small?" Tash asked, sticking one to the arm of her own glasses.

"Emily shrunk them down for me," Harriet explained. "Now, do we need Oneshots to speak Latin?"

"We shouldn't," Alice confirmed. "You only need Oneshots to give you a language if it's a specific plot point in the story."

"Fair enough," the leader nodded. "Now, what is the best wa... Louise! Where do you think you're going?"

The slave was already half way into the forum, her stride a determined march. She did not look back as Harriet addressed her, but she definitely heard, as her head twitched stubbornly in the other direction. In the blink of an eye however, she was standing back with the rest of the group, the back of her tunic in Tash's grasp – the leader had flash stepped over to her and hauled her back.

"I really hope you weren't thinking of going to take Merle on your own, were you?" Michael folded his arms and looked sternly down at her. Louise struggled out of Tash's grasp and glared at them all.

"Louise, there is a reason we brought a group," the Chief Agent continued. "If we all stick together, no one is getting hurt. That means no wandering off, by anyone – no matter how personal this is for you."

Feeling that he had sufficiently got his point across, Michael indicated to Harriet that she should continue.

"Right..." the leader drew a breath and began again. "Now, what do we think is the best way to find Merle and her family?"

"Emphasis on finding them quickly," Alice added. "Caesar is going to be..." she trailed off and mouthed 'murdered' before continuing in a normal voice, "in a couple of episodes. So we probably want to be out of here before the chaos descends."

There was a general murmur of agreement. No one particularly wanted to be around when that historical event kicked off.

"May I suggest," Cristoph broke in, "that since all three of our enemies are powerful, we should divide in order to conquer? We should not just go barging in. They'll be expecting us to. We may need to draw them out and separate the family."

"And how do you propose we do that?" Louise's voice was laced with impatience.

"Well..." it was Phoenixia who spoke this time. "Firstly Louise, since you're familiar with Merle, what will her motives be in a fandom like this?"

Louise frowned, thinking very hard about this. While familiar with Merle's behaviour, putting herself in her shoes was remarkably difficult, particularly taking into account the fandom, and just what was going to happen in the continuity fairly soon.

"This is Rome," she said. "For all intents and purposes, this is a depiction of one of the greatest empires in the world. So she's going to want what most upper class Romans want – power." She pulled a face. "And for a single woman to get power here...she needs to be sleeping with the right people."

"Wahey..." Alice muttered, wriggling her eyebrows, as Louise reached around blindly for some brain bleach.

"Okay...and if you're a woman and you want power in this fandom," Tash muttered. "You sleep with –"

"Caesar?" Claire suggested, and was surprised when Alice shook her head.

"Nope. He had enough problems with blinkin' Servillia. No, she'll know that Caesar is going to..." once again, she mouthed the next word, "die, soon. And once he's gone, there will be no one to protect her from the men who killed him."

"Added to which," Harriet interjected suddenly. "If I know my history, Caesar is in his fifties at this point – I doubt Merle is going to find him particularly attractive."

"You saying men in their fifties are ugly?" Phoenixia demanded, putting her hands on her hips (or what was left of her hips). "I happen to find mature men rather attractive..."

"Anyway!" Tash interrupted. "So its more likely that she'll be sleeping with the guy who's going to be running the show after Caesar pops his clogs...which would be –"

"Mark Antony," Alice and Louise spoke in unison. As she spoke, Alice adopted a suitably dreamy expression, and Louise poked her in the side.

"Whaaat?" Alice muttered reproachfully, rubbing her side. Seeing the confused expressions on the faces of half their group, she grinned wickedly. "Remember the giant cocks I mentioned earlier?"

"Anyway!" Louise interjected, as the brain bleach was swiped from her. "We'll probably find her with Mark Antony... he's still living in Pompey's old villa right now I think... but he's more likely to be visiting her bed, not the other way around."

"So we need to find out where Merle lives," Harriet summarised. "Who would know that?"

"Half the city, by the looks of it," Phoenixia muttered, her gaze fixed on a point just beyond Alice's shoulder. Everyone turned to see graffiti scrawled on the street wall. It depicted a man laying on his back, with a woman straddling him. Above the image were scrawled the name "Antonius" and "Merle".

"Hmm...but we can't just ask anyone," Harriet stated. "We need an ally. Someone who can tell us all we need to know, and gain some benefit from it."

"Anyone who doesn't particularly like Antony, who might be willing to tell us?" Ben asked.

There was a long silence, as all who were familiar with the series began to think hard. There were plenty of people who hated Antony – most of them were former supporters of Magnus Pompey, who had little love for Caesar, or his Tribune of Plebs.

"Cicero?" Tash suggested. "Antony did threaten to nail his hands to the senate door if he betrayed him."

"Nah, we can't trust anything he says," Alice shook her head. "He's so indecisive when it comes to choosing sides that the fence post is rammed up his arse."

"...Servillia?" Louise shrugged, trying to think of other influential people who might know of Merle's whereabouts.

"Nah, she'll like Merle at this stage," Tash shook her head. "Since she and her son are plotting Caesar's demise, anything that distracts Antony is good for her..." She snapped her fingers suddenly. "Wait! I've got it!"

Louise and Alice seemed to get it in the same instant, however their reactions were far from thrilled.

"Tashy..." Alice whined. "Not Atia. She's a bitch!"

"But it makes sense!" Tash said excitedly. "She'll hate Merle for stealing Antony away from her, and she'll hate Antony for screwing another woman!"

"Atia?" Phoenixia was mentally looking up the name. "Atia of the Julii? Caesar's niece?"

"Yup," Tash nodded. "And Antony's lover...or ex-lover since Merle is in the picture."

"Excellent!" Harriet bounced. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all! Onward dear underlings!"

"What about Richard and Robert?" Louise interjected, not keen in the slightest to go anywhere – aside from the fact that she wanted to find Merle herself, the thought of being in Atia's presence was nauseating. Either twin could be dangerous, but the elder especially.

"Won't they be with her?" Tash asked, confused. "I thought women were accompanied round here..."

"I imagine..." Alice interjected thoughtfully. "That if Merle is playing a widow, she'll have freedom to go wherever she pleases – kinda like Servillia. So she won't need an escort. Just slaves to guard her."

"So where will we find the men?" Rhia asked.

Louise didn't even have to think about that one.


"...brothels?" Harriet repeated.

"Brothels!" Phoenixia sounded far too happy about this.

"Brothels?" Rhia and Cristoph turned a curious shade of crimson each.

"...okay then," Michael cleared his throat, and pointed. "Patricians should go meet with this Atia woman and see if she'll help us. Phoenixia, Rhia and Cristoph should go check the brothels...and Louise, you go with them."

"What?" Louise was less inclined to go round a brothel than she was to meet Atia. Michael rolled his eyes.

"Look, Merle is more likely to be around upper class families than she is at a brothel. She knows who you are. We can't let her see you...equally, we can't let Richard see Alice, which is why she's coming with us. The longer we can maintain our disguises, the better."

Louise spluttered a protest, but the look on Michael's face told her it was useless. Huffing she muttered "Yes Dominus," sarcastically before marching off to the Forum. "Come on then. Cleaner brothels are behind the Venereal temple, apparently."

Her trio of helpers followed, Phoenixia instantly checking out everyone in her line of vision, and Rhia and Cristoph's hands sneaking together for reassurance as they entered the crowd.

"What is it going to take to cheer that woman up?" Harriet asked, folding her arms and huffing.

"Merle and her sons securely in the basement," Michael answered smartly.

"And for someone to offer her a full time job..." Alice added.

"...well, we can fix one of those I suppose," Harriet shrugged. "As I was saying, onward underlings! To the house of Atia!"

She strode off into the forum, leaving the others to shake their heads. Tash facepalmed, and called out.


The leader reversed back to her former place.

"'s that way, isn't it?"



The crowd cut a path for the group, probably realising that they were busy people who would not appreciate hold ups. Cristoph and Phoenixia intimidated people aside with their height, while Rhia clung close to her boyfriend, glaring at anyone who looked at them funny. But it was the furiously determined expression on Louise's face which sent most people scurrying for cover. She was swearing to herself that when they found Richard and Robert, she would deal with them herself. No one else would get hurt – to hell with what Michael said about teamwork.

The first two brothels they had tried had yielded no results – not that Louise was surprised. They were the less fancy of the nicer brothels, for the nobles with slightly less wealth at their disposal. If Merle was the head of the house, Robert and Richard could afford to have the best that money could buy. Still they had to be getting close now...

"Any Brain Bleach left?" Rhia asked wearily. A pink-cheeked Cristoph patted her and shook his head. They had used up the Brain Bleach after the first brothel, and an incident involving a two women, a man, some leather straps, and a pot of honey. Everyone had left slightly shell-shocked (except for Phoenixia, who was still ranting about how fanfiction authors were stupid and didn't know the first thing about what made good lubricant, or even one that wouldn't invite in every parasite in the land).

Louise rolled her eyes, thankful that they did not have to go to the seedier brothels, where the women were cheaper; all four of them would likely have been scarred for life. Louise herself had been too preoccupied to care that they were walking in on couples having rowdy sex, and Phoenixia was too busy complaining that she wasn't allowed to join in.

"Here's the next one," the ex-hologram gestured to the doorway, which was lined with curtains in vibrant colours. The smell of all these places was the same – sex masked by heavy perfume – and Louise felt short of breath again, and felt for the inhaler in her pocket.

"You okay?" Rhia had not missed the action, and took her shoulder gently.

"Not really, no," was the curt reply.

She yanked the curtains aside and marched in, trying to ignore the smell.

The lady who ran this brothel was a voluptuous middle aged woman, with a wide mouth, and upon the group's entrance, she immediately began protesting.

"Not in here!" she waved her hands, trying to shoo them back out of the door. "I'll have no slave or soldier types in my place. Off with you!"

Louise noticed that the woman's wig was slipping as she flapped about in agitation, and she felt an uncharacteristically spiteful urge to pull it off. That shrill voice was giving her a headache, and her breath was getting shorter the longer she stayed here.

Fortunately this had been their standard greeting in the first two brothels they had visited, and so Cristoph jumped straight in with their agreed cover story, before the woman could force them out.

"We are seeking the twins of the Ravensclaw house. We have a message for them from our master."

The woman's mouth stretched open in exasperation. "There are no gentlemen of that house doing business here now. Now get out."

As Cristoph stubbornly repeated the group's purpose, with further emphasis each time, Rhia and Louise began to sweep the bedrooms with Phoenixia guarding their backs. Rhia clutched the borrowed Plot Summary, pulling new, more exasperated faces each time she realised that she had the wrong room. Meanwhile Louise yanked back the curtains and moved on almost immediately, pausing only to kick one unlucky patron in the crotch when he asked if she would like to join in.

"Nothing," she closed the last curtains in disgust, as Rhia hurriedly marched back towards her boyfriend, muttering about how human bodies were never supposed to bend that way. As soon as Cristoph felt her beside him, he turned away from the woman, who immediately began muttering about badly trained slaves.

Once outside, Louise took a grateful puff of her inhaler.

"Damn..." she muttered, once she had got her breath back. "If this keeps up, word is going to get back to Merle eventually."

"We've still got a few more brothels," Rhia tried. "We'll find them." She winced, slipping one foot from her sandal, and trying to rub the ache away. "Soon hopefully – gah!"

She misjudged her step and stumbled off to one side, straight into the arms of a powerful man, marching past the group. Louise whirled, expecting trouble, but the man was not dressed as a nobleman; rather his tunic had an image of Caesar's eagle, making him a legionary. Louise gasped at the man's good natured smile – it was Titus Pullo.

"Watch yourself there," he placed Rhia back on her feet, and she was promptly passed by Louise over to Cristoph, who began fussing over her.

"Thank you sir," Louise realised as the most senior slave, she should probably be the one to speak. "New slaves," she lied quickly. "Still a bit clumsy."

Rhia blushed furiously, and buried her face into Cristoph's shoulder in embarrassment. The couple were pushed aside however by Phoenixia, whom Louise was horrified to see, had dropped her disguise completely, and switched back to having a feminine form again... a very feminine form.

"Aww, but you said last night you found my clumsiness endearing," Phoenixia slipped one arm around Louise's waist and gave Pullo her best smile. The ex-legionary's eyes followed a predictable path from both their faces down to their equally ample chests.

"Going to kill you, Nixie," Louise hissed under her breath.

"I guarantee you won't be saying that in the next minute," was the whispered response, in which Phoenixia took the opportunity to place a quick kiss to Louise's neck. The mortified agent squeaked in surprise, and Pullo's eyes watched with undisguised lust.

"Say soldier," Phoenixia began. "You wouldn't happen to know which of these establishments the brothers of the Ravensclaw house frequent? We have a message for them from our master."

"Are you now?" Pullo's brain sounded as though it were struggling to catch up. "Well I do know that they prefer the brothel two doors down. Right behind the temple."

Phoenixia gave a gasp of joy. "That's wonderful! How can we thank you for making our job easier?"

Pullo's stance changed to a relaxed pose, and he looked Phoenixia up and down obviously. "I'm open to any kind of thanks you can think of..."

Tired of being stuck in the middle of two sex-crazed people, Louise pointedly removed her companion's arms, and turned to Rhia and Cristoph, who had backed off as soon as the conversation had begun, and were now smiling at each other and exchanging hushed words.

"Oi!" Louise called. "Stop flirting and come on! We know where we're going now!"

Sighing in disappointment, Phoenixia opted instead to press her ample body against Pullo and push him to the side of the street, before giving him a very enthusiastic thank you kiss, which the soldier was only too happy to reciprocate. Louise gave a long suffering sigh, particularly when she realised that tongues were getting heavily involved.

"Don't make me drag you Phoenixia!" she growled in irritation. Phoenixia turned away smiling.

"Didn't know you liked it rough Lou," she winked at the woman before allowing herself to be led down the next street.

Titus Pullo just watched them go, his eyes glued to the curvaceous form that was barely hidden beneath that ripped tunic. He shook his head to clear the daze.

"Damn... one smile from Pullo and they're as wet as October," he muttered to himself. "Cock, now where was I going again…?"

The brothel he had described was indeed situated right behind the temple to an aspect of Venus that protected from disease. As they passed the silk curtains, Louise felt a tightening sensation in her chest, which had nothing to do with her asthma. Richard and Robert were here. She could feel it, and she didn't seem to be the only one. Cristoph and Rhia were walking straighter than before, and Phoenixia had switched back to her male form, with little fanfare, and a grim expression on her face.

The mistress of this house narrowed her eyes at the four of them, and opened her mouth to rudely dismiss them, until Cristoph stepped forward impatiently and delivered their request. The woman's mouth hung open for a second, her eyes registering shock that she had been interrupted by a slave, until finally the word 'urgent' seemed to make its way to the forefront of her mind. She pointed to the rooms.

"Second and third, but I really don't think they want to be disturbed..."

None of them listened. Louise, Cristoph and Rhia pushed their way toward the rooms, while Phoenixia hastily planted a small bag of coins into the woman's hands, muttering vaguely to her about compensation. The weight was enough to stun the woman while the agents went to work.

Hope was welling up in Louise now – they had hunted all over the cities for the men, and now their search was about to come to an end. Across the corridor, Rhia's expression was similar, as she rested a hand on the curtain. Louise realised her own was trembling with the nervous excitement that preceded a catch. She nodded to Rhia, and in unison, the two pulled their curtains back.

The room was larger than those of some of the other brothels, draped in silks and linens of various colours. A cushiony looking bed was not currently in use, and the lighting was dim. Two figures stood against the wall opposite the bed, one female, being practically forced into the wall, a man behind her, holding her arms roughly above her head as he grunted with exertion against her.

Louise felt all the utter disgust she had been building over the past hour vanish – instead she felt utterly fearful the moment she laid her eyes on Richard – the man who had almost killed Alice. She wanted to turn and run as fast as she could. But she had a job to do, and she had to do it before anyone else got hurt.

"God, now I need therapy," she stated, as Richard's shocked face twisted into a scowl as he recognised just who had interrupted him. The unfortunate prostitute whom he was pinning face flat against the wall, merely sighed and waited for him to continue. Over Louise's shoulder, Phoenixia peeked in, all ready to make a flirtatious quip, but the words died on her lips. She had seen Richard before on his file in the Society's databanks; in the flesh, the cruelty in his eyes made her shudder.

Across the corridor, Rhia and Cristoph had found a similarly decorated room, and Robert...or at least, they thought they had. It was very hard to tell from behind. The man was tanned from many weeks' campaign in the sun, and seemed slightly diminutive compared to the first man; the identical black hair was just that little bit longer, enough to fall over his eyes. His own woman was on her hands and knees, and he knelt behind her; unlike his elder brother, Robert was too engaged with what (or rather, who) he was doing to notice that he had visitors.

Cristoph wasted no time, leaping forwards and ripping the man away from his activity, wrestling his arms behind his back, while Rhia slipped around the pair, Prohibitor in hand. The confused prostitute backed against the wall, screaming fearfully, as from the next room, Richard bellowed a warning to his brother. The yell spurned the younger brother's strength, and he ripped himself free of Cristoph's firm grasp, as Rhia grasped his wrist. Before she could get the Prohibitor on him, he was up, pulling and trying to twist free. Rhia's grasp on the Prohibitor slipped, but she was sharp enough to hold onto his wrist and twist the joint into a lock and slam him bodily into the wall. The curtains above their heads rippled from the impact.

As Cristoph seized the discarded Prohibitor, Rhia gave a scream of pain as Robert kicked backwards, landing a blow straight in her once fractured kneecap. The joint jarred, sending the agent tumbling to the floor, clutching her injury, as her enraged boyfriend's eyes turned stormy. Robert scarcely had time to turn around before he was pinned to the wall by his throat, Cristoph's gaze promising no mercy as the Prohibitor was clamped firmly around his wrist.

Meanwhile, Richard was roaring like a wounded animal as Phoenixia's muscled body wrestled against him, both of them pushing back and forth, kicking out whenever they thought they spotted a weakness in the other. Louise danced nervously around, waiting for any opening in which she could leap into the fight and slap the Prohibitor around his wrist. She could see Phoenixia's body growing steadily more and more muscled the longer the fight went on, until Richard's strength was no match for her, and she pinned him to the wall, with one of his arms dropping tiredly to his side. Louise nimbly closed the distance.

But Richard was not done yet, and Louise realised too late that she had forgotten how dirty he could fight. His sword appeared from nowhere in his exhausted hand, and thrust deeply into Phoenixia's shoulder. The ex-hologram screamed, a mixture of shock and pain all over her face, but she did not move back as trickles of blood soaked into her tunic. The second of distraction was all Richard needed, as he swiftly kicked her feet out from under her and she tumbled ungracefully to the side, blood pouring more fiercely from her open wound.

"Nixie!" Louise dropped the Prohibitor without thinking, and rushed to her friend's side, reaching into her own tunic for her handkerchief to stem the bleeding. She was barely conscious of Richard's sword above her own head, but a flash from the next room, and a cry of disbelief and despair from Robert indicated the successful activation of a Prohibitor, and with a cry of anger, Richard fled the room.

Out of the corner of the ninja's eye, a flash of metal appeared, and Cristoph released the Stu, ninjato in his hand to parry the stab that would have gone into his heart. He hastily put some distance between himself and the elder brother. However Richard was in no mood for a proper fight, seeing his twin weakened and drained of his powers. He seized Robert and shoved him brutally toward the door, not caring that the younger was not dressed, before slashing out at one of the curtain supports. The fine silk fluttered helplessly into a candle flame, which licked at it gleefully, and in seconds, the entire wall had gone up in flames. Richard seemed to evaporate in the smoke.

Coughing as he resheathed ninjato, Cristoph scrambled to Rhia's side, and pulled her arm over his shoulder. As they hurried from the room, Louise reappeared from the opposite room, one arm still around Phoenixia, despite the fact that her regeneration had already healed the worst of the stab wound.

"They got away!" Cristoph shouted over the flames, which were now rapidly spreading to the adjoining rooms. Louise, though drawing breath heavily from the smoke, still found the energy to swear loudly, as Phoenixia ushered them at a run from the burning building.

On the street, people were running left and right, buckets of water being passed between neighbours in an attempt to put the blaze out before the adjoining buildings and temple caught fire too. The exhausted agents half ran, half staggered for two streets, before they finally collapsed gratefully at the front steps of a house.

"Shit..." Louise took another puff of her inhaler and began trying to school her breathing back to its normal rate.

"Is everyone okay?" Phoenixia asked, disregarding her own injuries as soon as she spotted Cristoph anxiously inspecting Rhia's knee. The older woman sighed heavily as she too bent down to examine it.

"That's the one you injured in Babylon 5..." she muttered, before swearing. "You should go back to Val..."

"I'm fine," Rhia stubbornly protested. "He didn't kick that hard. Anyway, what about you? Where did all that blood come from?"

"Did we get any of them?" Louise asked urgently, remembering the flash of light that could only be a Prohibitor. Rhia nodded slowly.

"We Prohibited Robert, but Richard rescued him. Sorry Lou..."

"Sit down Rhiannon," Cristoph said firmly, as Rhia tried to rise to her feet again. Phoenixia began rummaging in her pockets for any painkillers, since Rhia was stubbornly refusing to go back to the Library.

"Its okay," Louise assured her. "At least we Prohibited one of them..." but inside she was fuming beyond belief at their bad luck. They had been so close! If only they'd planned better they could have got both of them, and not almost burned down half of Rome in the process.

And worse, now they had failed, she knew it would not be long before Merle knew that the Society were in Rome. The thought sent a shiver down Louise's spine, like no chill could.


She was a very pretty lady, Alice mused reluctantly. In a manipulative bitchy sort of way.

The head of the Julii household was a proud woman, with tightly curled auburn hair and a face that was never too far from a scowl. She sat on what could almost be described as a throne, with her personal slave at her side, and another serving her a platter of grapes.

Michael and Claire stood before her, with the latter just a pace behind her husband, as was custom, with Alice and Harriet bringing up the rear. Tash and Ben were to one side, melting into the shadows, as all good slaves did.

"So..." Atia plucked a grape from the platter and bit into it slowly. She made no move to offer any of her guests grapes. "You wished to speak to me...what was your name again?" She directed her comments to Michael. Alice had noticed almost as soon as they entered, that she was making no attempts to be polite to any of them, except for the head of the house – it was possible she was thinking that since Antony had ditched her, she may well need another man to champion her soon. Alice mentally snorted. Too bad for her. Michael was spoken for.

"Manius," Michael mentally rehearsed the cover name that Alice had provided from her mountain of research. "Manius Silius Eclectus."

Claire and Harriet gave the softest of giggles in unison, and Alice rolled her eyes. She had worked hard to find names that were close enough and accurate enough to fit the group; full-length real Roman names that did not immediately relate the patricians to anyone risky, and monikers for the slaves that matched their initials for easy identification. All her fellow female 'family members' had done since first hearing the most tricky name of the lot – Michael's – had been to snicker under their breaths. She was beginning to think that her efforts were sorely unappreciated.

Fortunately Atia appeared not to have noticed Claire and Harriet's unbecoming manners, focusing her attention instead on Michael.

"I see...I hear you happen to be new to Rome?"

Michael gave a soft smile. "Oh, just a flying visit. I shall be taking care of some business in the city for a few weeks. We have..." he paused to think about his words. "A task, of the utmost importance to complete, before we can continue on our way."

"How fascinating," Atia's voice was anything but fascinated however, and Michael realised that she was swiftly growing bored with this charade. It was time to get to the point.

"I believe that you are acquainted with a certain lady. Another newcomer to the city. The lady Merle?"

At the mention of the name, Atia's expression shifted to one of undisguised loathing, and she gave a snort. "Hardly acquainted, but yes, I am familiar with her."

"You don't care for her, I see," Michael's smile grew wider.

"Not in the least!" Atia muttered, rolling her eyes to the heavens. "It is no secret to Rome as to who's bedding that little tart these days...the only care I would have would be for her death! Or at least something very humiliating."

"Hmm... we share a common enemy it seems," Michael's arms were folded and his stance was relaxed now. Predictably, Atia's cold eyes fixed on him calculatingly. When she detected no hint of deception, she allowed a wicked smile to grow on her face.

"You care not for her either?" she inquired. Michael shook his head.

"Oh not at all. In fact... removing her and her sons from the picture is one of our top priorities whilst we are in the city."

The lady of the house was sitting perfectly straight now, her hands clenching against the arm rests the only clue as to her excitement. However, she was not a fool; the rational side of her mind was working at full steam now.

"And you would achieve this how? She has the People's Tribune under her thumb, and with him, all the legions he commands. Do you have an army?"

"No army," Michael admitted. "But we are clever. We have the means to incapacitate her and her family. We have brought several of our best men with us to achieve this. We just need to draw her out of her home. Somewhere where we have the advantage."

Atia rose from her chair and began to pace the room. "If I were to... assist in this matter," she began pausing to continue her thought. "Allow the assistance of my own men, and suggest that she be brought here, to an unfamiliar place, would I have your word that you would successfully take care of her?"

Michael frowned. "You would have the word of my whole house... however inviting her into your home would immediately suggest that you had something to do with it..."

"Unless there were more than one person," the lady of the Julii was ahead of him. "It would be easier to disguise as an accident. Say I was to throw a party - there's plenty of excuse for one, with Caesar's consulship - there would be enough people here to disguise it if she were to just disappear."

The pieces fell into place, and Michael beamed. "I do believe, that that is a very good idea. Very well then. You throw us a party, and we shall see to it that Merle disappears."

"I have your word?" Atia checked, but she had a wolfish smile none the less.

"Of course," Michael inclined his head. "I can promise you Atia, that by the time we are done, you will have forgotten that Merle even existed... and so will Mark Antony."


The door banged open, and the flimsy hinges rattled ominously. Merle turned her head from the book she was reading, and sighed. Her two sons stood silhouetted in the doorway. One, the elder, Richard was fuming. He stormed into the room and threw himself onto one of the couches. Robert, the younger, lingered on the threshold.

"Well don't stand there like a lemon, boy!" Merle snapped, her usual terseness directed at the uncomfortable Robert. He entered, but still looked ill at ease. Merle's attention shifted to Richard, now selecting from a collection of fruit, held on the hand of a nervous-looking slave.

"What happened?" she demanded,

Richard's face still held the anger it had displayed upon entering his home. "He..." Richard pointed directly at his brother, "he went and got himself Prohibited, didn't he!"

Merle's head whizzed around, and stared at the subject of Richard's accusation. Robert tried to hide his left wrist. On it was a bracelet-like item. He slid it beneath his ill-wrapped toga. The lady got to her feet, and approached him.

"You got yourself Prohibited by those… bastards from the Society!"

Richard, pushing away the slave to the point the poor woman fell onto the floor, commented, "It was that bitch Mirani," his voice dripped with contempt. Merle stiffened, her hand fingering the hilt of the small blade which hung at her hip. She turned back to Robert, still lingering just within the doorway.

"Get out of my sight!" she yelled. Her voice was loud enough that the crows in the tree outside were alarmed, and took to flight.

Robert didn't hesitate. He knew what sort of temper Merle had, and didn't particularly want to be on the receiving end of it. He disappeared from the main room, into a smaller, more private section of the house.

"Now..." Merle turned to Richard, "tell me everything."

Richard told her how their enemy had found them at the brothel, and how they had been unable to get the drop on him, but Robert had been attacked. At this mention, Merle's hand flew to the dagger at her waist, withdrew it, and the point impacted in the nearest wooden item.

The slaves, who up until this point had been peering around the corner, ran from the room.

"That does it!" Merle was furious. "She brings her allies against me."

Richard corrected her, "Against us."

Merle kept going. "She attacks my family. Right, that is the final straw. Richard..." she didn't get a chance to continue, for one of her slaves sidled into the room.

"WHAT?" Merle demanded. She didn't like to be interrupted when she was plotting the demise of an enemy.

"Domina, a letter from Atia of the Julii."

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