Prisca had visited one of Rome’s many public baths at least once a day since she was a teenager. Even now, as she entered the tepidarium and smelt the fragrant oils and incense, she could remember the first time she’d stumbled into one of these buildings. Covered in a man’s blood, she’d been desperate to wash away both the damning red gore and her shame. So many years since that first kill, she still made a ritual of bathing to cleanse herself of her enemies’ blood. No longer, however, did she feel the need to cleanse herself of guilt or shame; there was none to wash away.
The violence and bloodshed had become her life. She wasn’t the same, frightened girl who had frantically scrubbed the blood from her skin every time she killed; she served the dominus Mestrius now, paid to wash away his enemies like so much dirt. Now she came here for pleasure and vanity, to keep her skin pristine and her hair gleaming. So regularly did she attend baths, in fact, that she had earned herself a unique nomenclature…
“Prisca the Clean? To what do I owe this honour?”
He stood in the centre of the pool, the copious hair on his thick torso plastered to his wet, glistening skin. She studied him. Aelius; Mestrius’ right-hand man and confidante since the dominus was but a youth. Grey hair and expanding girth hinted at Aelius’ age, but his broad shoulders and thick arms also betrayed his strength; not for nothing was he rumoured to have killed at least three men—Mestrius’ rivals all—with his bare hands and whatever blunt objects lay to hand.
“Well,” he said, laughing, “Will you answer, or do you intend to merely stare at me? Had I known you found me so captivating, I would have invited you to my villa years ago.”
He laughed, and, on cue, his bodyguards laughed also. Silent, hands folded in her lap, Prisca studied those bodyguards as she stood beside the pool. She recognised one as Aelius’ oldest—and most trusted—bodyguard, Valens. Naked, he also bathed in the pool’s heated waters. The other two bodyguards stood beside the pool. Although fully clothed, even their skin glistened, wet from the steam of the heated pool. All three were scarred veterans with years of violence in their wake.
“Speak now,” Aelius said. He expression—like his tone—darkened. Short was his temper, as Prisca knew. Only last week he had beaten Drusilla half to death for failing to kill one of Mestrius’ rivals. “Why are you here?”
“I’ve been sent by Mestrius.” She began to undress, loosening the belt around her tunic. “He has sent me to bequeath you a gift…”
Her tunic fell to the floor, and Aelius licked his lips as his bodyguards whistled and leered at the naked Prisca. Only Valens seemed unmoved by her nakedness, expression dark and agitated.
“And a fine looking gift it is too,” said Aelius, his eyes devouring her naked form. “And what have I done to deserve such a generous token?”
“You’ve been selling Mestrius’ secrets to his enemies,” she said as, unarmed, she stepped into the pool. “But, out of respect for your past service, Mestrius has instructed me to grant you a swift death. That is his gift to you.”
Aelius’ expression hardened, and his lascivious smile became a sneer.
“Kill her,” he said to his guards. “Slowly.”
She looked from one guard to another. As she studied them, she saw them exchange glances, narrow of eye and grim of expression.
“Well?” shouted Aelius. “What are you waiting for?”
One drew a dagger, the other a gladius. Valens looked at Prisca, then at his brothers in arms, and back at Prisca again. He backed way from Prisca as she moved languidly through the water and toward Aelius.
“What are you waiting for?” Aelius shouted, voice echoing about the pool. “There are three of you and one of her! Kill her now!”
“There’s the thing, Aelius,” said Prisca, voice low and calm. She paused, taking time to wash her face and shoulders. “You forget these men are in Mestrius’ employ. Just as he had previously paid them to protect you, so now he pays them to obey me.”
Aelius’ eyes widened, and he stared at his erstwhile bodyguards as one threw his gladius to Valens, and the other stepped into the water, dagger at the ready.
“Remember,” Prisca said, addressing the three men, “Mestrius has ordered a swift death.”
“Whore of Orcus!” The water parted over Aelius’ torso in two bow waves as he surged through the pool and toward her, hands reaching for her neck. “I’ll destroy you!”
She snapped her fingers, and Valens threw the gladius to her. She snatched it from the air and turned it on Aelius in one swift, fluid motion. Unable to arrest his momentum, he lurched onto the blade. It slid smoothly into his chest. Eyes rolling up into his skull, he gurgled as blood flowed from his mouth. The pool turned red as he sank down and under the water, gladius protruding from his torso.
“Take him from here and deliver him to his family,” Prisca said to the three bodyguards as she turned away and walked back toward the edge of the pool. “Mestrius has already arranged for Aelius to be buried with all due ceremony.”
She climbed out of the pool and bent down to retrieve her clothes. Seeing the blood on her skin, she paused, bile rising in her throat.
“And what shall you do?” asked Valens.
“She shall bathe, no doubt, and then she will come with me; I have a new job for her.”
Prisca and the three men turned to see Bruttia stood in the doorway. Hands on her broad hips, her massive frame filled the door as she studied Prisca.
“Job?” asked Prisca, gathering up her clothes. Her chest tightened at the sight of Bruttia; to see her could mean only one thing. “What ‘job’?”
“We’re killing my brother and the rest of his gang,” said Bruttia. “So prepare yourself, Prisca the Clean…
“…Because my brother fights dirty.”