I turn to the face on the wall.
I am one of the wanted.
And apparently a murderer too, I remind myself.
A shift in the market does not go unnoticed by me. There. A pair of keen grey eyes locks onto my own, paralyzing me, boring deep into my mind, searching hungrily for information. They are very old eyes, I tell myself.
For a moment, I wonder if I look like that.
Yet that thought vanishes as another rings out urgently in my mind: Has he made the connection? Have I been discovered? Panic fills me as my heart rises with fear. With one shaking hand, I tear the parchment so that my face rips in two; with the other, I pull my hooded robe up. Hundreds of shards of paper cascade onto the rich soil, squashed under my cheap, wooden shoes. Just like that, my identity crumbles away in my hand, and I free it into the sun and the wind, watch it as it is swallowed up by the blue, blue sky. They remind me of the mosaic patterns in Master’s bedroom; the vivid painting of the thousands of swan swimming in the huge lake still haunts me to this very day. Even though I know it must have perished in the fire, and even though it would have been stained in Master’s blood when I killed him, I briefly close my eyes to savour the sweet memory of happiness, of safety, of Young Master.
The illusion of peace is swept briskly aside as I return to danger. Wincing as I gingerly take my wrongful place in the sun, I disappear into the crowd.
It doesn’t take him long to find me.
It is not a question but a simple statement.
‘You will address me as Juno,’ I say with weak confidence. Juno is the goddess of family, of marriage, of women. She is the wife and sister of Jupiter. Minerva is a horrible name; I don’t want to be clever and learn poetry and medicine; that’s what boys do. It is much simpler to stick to the uncomplicated matters of life, the safer side of the world. But I know with a sinking heart that safety is beyond my reach now. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons why I threw away my old life.
‘Juno.’ His voice sounds bored, like he is just toying with me. It makes me want to hurt him, scratch him with my nails, push him hard so that he knows what it’s like to fall down to the bottom. Instead, I clench my fists into an angry ball. This time, I know Jupiter will not forgive me if I murder another innocent man, annoying though he may seem.
‘Follow me,’ the man says almost lazily, bringing me back to the present. ‘And wipe your tears. It is drawing too much attention from the crowd.’
I hadn’t noticed I was crying. I am surprised he can even see under my cloak; although I suppose that is the basic things an assassin must learn to do – to be observant. I must confess, even after a month on the run, I am still not good at spying. I can’t differentiate between a lie and the truth. I can’t distinguish who is my friend or enemy.
My instinctive reaction is to obey his orders, and for a few moments, I stumble after him, weaving my way through the noisy market crowd. Then I stop, because I remember I am not a slave-girl any more because my Master and Mistress are dead, and the only person I will ever follow is not here, perhaps even dead like his parents before him.
The man notices I don’t follow and turns back to me. Already I can see the signs; his muscles are tensed and his stance is strong. He is not afraid to use force if he has to.
‘Why should I trust you?’ My voice is barely audible but I know he can hear it.
There is a moment where we both stare at each other, daring each other to make a move.
My name is called out in the silence, even though the market is not silent at all. The world is polluted with noise but my heart remains dead to the world. The clanking of sestertius’ being exchanged in the market stalls clink to the beat of my thundering heart that is furiously pounding away. I recognize that voice.
A familiar figure emerges next to me and clutches my arm. Young Master leans in towards my ear and whispers fervently, ‘Minerva, we must go. This place isn’t safe. We can talk more on the boat.’
I do not understand but I nod my head, lost for words because I am so happy that the person I love is right in front of me, talking to me, pulling me along –
As we move steadily through the throng, my senses turn on again. Now that Young Master is here I can breathe once more, take in the smell of grapes and olives and apples and onions. It does smell good, I realize. Perhaps there is some joy in life after all.
Inside the ship, I meet a whole crew of people just like the grey-eyed man. I think to myself – friend or foe? Do I really trust these people? As soon as I think this, however, Young Master’s hand slips through mine, and gives it a sharp squeeze. I know I can trust him.
One of the lads scurries over and hands me a tin of Picenian bread; the fine biscuit crumbles once inside my dry mouth.
I set down the empty metal tin in the folds of my robe. Confession time.
‘I’m so sorry, Young Master. They killed Mistress right away. I tried to save her, I really did.’ A pause. ‘Then they started to burn the villa.’
His eyes are blank as he asks me the question I’ve been dreading all along.
‘What about my father?’
‘We could have escaped.’ I hang my head in shame as I confess all of this. ‘We could have escaped the villa. But Master wouldn’t go. He said he wasn’t going to leave Mistress. He said what was the point anymore when there was nothing worth fighting for. I said he still had you but he simply refused to leave the villa. He asked me to cut his throat. I- I – I…’ I what? What should I say?
I’m sorry? I did what I was told?
What young Master says next surprises me. There is no sadness in his voice but raw determination and confidence. ‘I need you to come with me to Caligula’s palace.’ His eyes search over me. ‘The people of Rome hate him. You know it, I know it. He is crazy, unfit to be our emperor. The crimes he has committed…they are unforgivable. Tonight, we are going to assassinate him. But you must help us first. Please, Minerva.’
And I have made up my mind.
Caligula lies asleep before me. Even now, his sleeping face loses none if its hostility. His sister, Lady Julia, lies before him, drunk and unconscious. I pity them that the last moments they have together is the time they use for vulgar intimacy.
Young Master was right; Caligula is evil. Yet why then do I still hesitate when I see Young Master raise his knife? In the seconds the silver blade moves towards where the emperor’s heart lies, I sprint to take the blow.
I don’t even feel it when the knife comes crashing into my chest. Red colour blossoms on my white dress where the knife connects with my body and I topple forward onto Young Master.
His chin rests upon the crown of my golden hair and my skull vibrates with every word he cries out: ‘Why, Minerva? Why did you defend that villain? Don’t die on me…’ And he weeps right there, my beautiful Young Master who is so confident actually starts crying.
I have only seconds left. ‘Don’t kill Caligula. You’ll only regret it. This is revenge for your father and mother; it needn’t be like this. I love-’
Caligula wakes up. His mind must be foggy from all the wine but he can still comprehend what is happening enough to call out to The Praetorian Guard outside. The rest of our crew flee for their lives but Young Master just holds on tight to me even when I plead for him to let go. The last thing I see is Young Master’s brave smile as he shelters me from harm and danger.