“You’re quiet tonight,” Leontia murmured in Vermio’s ear. She’d lowered her voice so as to not disturb the rest of the small, attentive audience. “What’s bothering you?”
He glanced at her, and smiled as best he could. He was rewarded with an arched eyebrow as Leontia folded her arms, drumming the fingers of one hand on her bicep in anticipation.
“It’s nothing,” he whispered to her. “I’m fine.” He nodded at the poet. Stood in the centre of the small room, the youth continued with his earnest performance. “What do you think of the oratory?”
“It bores me,” Leontia whispered as she took Vermio by the arm and led him toward the door. “If you’ve heard one poem about the Aeneads, you’ve heard them all.”
She steered Vermio through the door and out onto the street. An involuntary chill ran down Vermio’s spine; it was much cooler tonight, bordering on cold.
“I grant you that wasn’t the best odea I’ve taken you to,” he said, avoiding Leontia’s searching gaze. “He was much better when I saw him recite his piece on Apollo and Cassandra.
“Don’t change the subject,” Leontia said as she hooked her arm through his and guided him down the street and toward the Piazza della Subura. “What’s on your mind?”
He bit his lip. Where to start?
“Just start at the beginning,” Leontia said, her tone softening.
He looked at her, and she smiled a rare smile. He smiled back. How fortunate I am, he thought, to have such a good—not to mention intuitive—friend.
“It’s Hostilius,” he muttered, looking down at his sandals. “His campaign to be elected to the plebeian aedile is becoming more and more vicious.
“So I hear,” said Leontia. “What he did to Laelius was brutal.”
Vermio shuddered. He was there when Hostilius’ men had raided Laelius’ bakery, when they’d put Laelius and his men to the sword. All that blood, all spilt for the sake of Hostilius’ ambitions…
“I can’t fault his logic, though,” said Leontia. “Seize the city’s bakeries to control its bread; gift that bread to the plebeians to buy their votes.”
“He’s hell bent on being elected to the aedile,” said Vermio. “He sees it as his first step on the way to the senate and he’ll kill anybody to do it.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “It makes me sick to my stomach, Leontia. To fight in Hostilius’ gang against another gang is one thing; to slaughter bakers to steal their bakeries is totally different.”
“Well, there’s simple solution, Vermio,” Leontia said. Vermio almost grimaced; he’d heard that tone of voice before, and it usually heralded the arrival of some home truths. “Leave Hostilius’ gang. There are plenty of other gangs in the city. Hell, you could even join mine.”
“Join your gang?” Vermio almost laughed. Almost. “The Daughters of Sappho?”
“Why not,” she said with a broad grin. “You’re more effeminate than the rest of us, your makeup’s better, and, in Urganella’s case, you’re a lot prettier.”
“He can’t leave our gang; he has a job to do.”
Vermio and Leontia turned, startled, as Valeria emerged from the darkness of a nearby doorway. She studied them intently even as she rolled a denarius across her knuckles. Vermio’s heart sank. For Valeria to be here could only mean one thing: it was time to go to work.
“Hello, Vermio,” said Valeria. Her smile was as devoid of warmth as her voice. “Have you had a pleasant evening? Did you enjoy the recital?”
“What do you want?” said Leontia as she stepped between Vermio and Valeria.
“It’s passed Vermio’s bedtime,” said Valeria. Her eyes narrowed as she studied Leontia, and Vermio wondered if she were sizing up her chances against this feared fighter. “He has to be up early in the morning.”
“Early?” Vermio’s voice wavered and rose an octave. “Why?”
“Hostilius wants Eurysaces’ bakery, and we’re taking it at dawn.”
“And what if he doesn’t want to take Eurysaces’ bakery,” asked Leontia before Vermio had the chance to finish his sentence.
“He has no choice,” said Valeria. Her voice possessed a bored tone. “Vermio owes Hostilius his life, and Hostilius owns Vermio’s body and soul.”
“No man owns—”
“Be quiet,” Valeria said, interrupting Leontia. “No one cares what you think, especially Hostilius. If he—”
A streak of silver flashed from the folds of Leontia's tunic as she threw a dagger toward Valeria. The knife clattered harmlessly off a wall as Valeria ducked under its trajectory. With a dive and a roll, Valeria closed the gap between herself and Leontia before springing to her feet and seizing the startled Leontia by the throat. Gone now was Valeria’s denarius, and instead she held a dagger. Knuckles white as she clutched her weapon, she drew back her hand, ready to thrust her blade into Leontia.
Teeth bared, Vermio slapped the knife from Valeria’s hand before seizing her by the wrist and dragging her away from his friend.
“Enough!” he shouted. “There is no need for this. I will come with you…” His voice lowered as he hung his head. “...I always come with you.”
“No, Vermio!” Leontia said as she pushed Valeria to one side. “Don’t let this vile creature bully you! She can’t make you fight for Hostilius! Come with me—”
“No. It’s no use,” said Vermio, head bowed and eyes closed. “Hostilius owns me. When he bids, I must obey.”
“Then touch up your makeup, pretty boy…” said Valeria with a sneer. “…And wear something that doesn’t clash with red.”