The Price of Failure, by Paul L. Mathews

 

“What news, Durio?”

Valeria—stood in a cool, darkened corner of Hostilius’ office as she danced a denarius across her knuckles—narrowed her eyes as she watched the unfolding scene. Durio stood in the centre of room. Shoulders slumped and covered in sweat and his own blood, he breathed in ragged gasps through his open mouth, clearly unable to draw air through the ruination of his smashed nose. By comparison, the resplendent Hostilius—white toga contrasting with his lustrous black hair—seemed to be imbued with an inner radiance. He stood on the office’s balcony as he watched the sun rising over Rome.

“I said, ‘what news’?”

Durio flinched. Hostilius’ annoyance at having to repeat himself was evident, his voice barbed and poisonous.

“He, er…” Durio cleared his throat. “He said he’d consider a sensible offer.”

Valeria raised an eyebrow. A sensible offer? she thought. Bold; either this Eurysaces didn’t know who he was dealing with, or he was just stupid.

“And you outlined my terms?” Hostilius asked as he turned away from the sunrise to glare at Durio, silhouetted by the sun. “That the only alternative to his accepting my offer was death?”

“I…” Durio faltered, clearing his throat. “No.”

Valeria paused, mouth falling open. Did Durio really just say—?

“No?” The bones on Hostilius’ knuckles became white as he clenched his fists. “You did not outline my terms?”

“I didn’t have the chance. He broke my nose and threw me out of his bakery before I—”

“Enough!” Hostilius snapped his fingers. “Talavus!”

Stood by the door, the massive Gaul closed the gap between himself and Durio in two strides. The hapless Durio—looking over his shoulder just in time to see the Gaul closing in on him—turned back to Hostilius and wrung his hands as he pleaded.

“Please!” he begged. “I tried! But Eurysaces is headstrong—”

Valeria had been fighting on the streets of Rome since she was a child and she did not consider herself squeamish. But Talavus scared her. Having failed to safeguard the statue of Apollo at Senator Caius’ temple to the sungod, the Gaul had been castigated by the senator and discharged from his employ … only to be snapped up by Hostilius. The Gaul now acted as the dominus’ bodyguard and enforcer. Her throat tightened and a pit opened in her stomach as she watched the Gaul seize the imploring Durio by the arm.

“Please!” Durio begged once more. “He wouldn’t listen! He—”

“Valeria?”

She looked away from the hapless Durio and toward Hostilius. He beckoned her to him. Ignoring Durio’s agonised cries as Talavus began beating the weakened ganger, she walked across the room and to Hostilius’ side. She shielded her eyes from the glare of the rising sun as she left the room’s Stygian shade. The sunlight felt warm on her skin.

“Find Vermio,” Hostilius said, raising his voice over Durio’s cries and the pounding of Talavus’ fists. Hostilius’ face was lost in shadow as he spoke to her, his black hair outlined with a fiery corona of sunlight. “Tell him to make Eurysaces’ bakery mine, and to give Eurysaces’ body to the Tiber. Understand?”

She nodded, but her lip twisted in a sneer. Vermio? She thought. That weakling. More concerned with makeup and theatre than the will of his dominus—

“And Valeria…?”

“Yes, dominus?”

He nodded toward the room, and toward Durio. Curled in a ball with his hands over his head, still he suffered a rain of blows and kicks from the relentless Talavus.

“…Remind Vermio of the price of failure.”

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