Erik is breaking into Julius Caesar’s home to assassinate him.
He knew the front entrance, angled slightly toward him but still nearly fifty yards away, would be well guarded. He thought he could make out at least two men standing in the dim torchlight in front of the building. He’d stand a better chance of getting in from the side, where a row of decorative hedges at least provided some minimal cover. He cut to the right side of the street and continued as close to its edge as possible, skirting the walls and steps of the buildings that lined it. He proceeded carefully, ensuring he was far enough to the side that the guards had no chance to see him as he approached the Domus. He turned onto the narrow street that ran to the right of the massive home.
Taking another swift glance around to be sure no one was watching, Erik slid behind the hedges and pressed himself against the wall. With a small thrill, he remembered that the building also housed the Vestal Virgins, the maidens whose innocence served as Rome’s luck. Maybe he could take a small detour later…
He blinked and shook his head to clear it. He had to stay focused or there wouldn’t be any later. He mentally reviewed the layout of the building. If he remembered correctly, behind this wall were servants quarters which, along with the foyer, ringed a central atrium in the main portion of the building. That meant if he moved a little farther along the outer wall, he’d be alongside the garden.
He ran along the narrow space between the hedges and the wall, until he could just make out the back corner of the building along the Via Nova, the major road flanking its rear. Stopping between two pools of flickering light cast by the torches lining the street, he slipped off his sandals and pulled a bundle of black cloth from beneath his tunic. Unrolled, the thin cloth was recognizable as a set of black pants and a black long-sleeved shirt. Wrapped within them were a small metal rod and a length of rope. Erik quickly doffed his tunic, goosebumps rising as the chill air touched his skin. He pulled the dark clothes on. Though the fit was already snug, he used sewn-in strings to tie them around his elbows, wrists, knees and ankles. He’d rolled his eyes when Versan had insisted he attach the strings to the outfit to prevent any noise from flapping cloth. Now it didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.
He flipped a switch and pressed a button on the metal rod, and four sharp hooks sprang from its sides. The corners of his mouth twitched as he remembered the first time he’d practiced running with the grappling hook hidden under his clothes, fastened to a loop on his belt. He’d forgotten to set the safety, and his left thigh now bore a long, puckered scar. A few inches higher and he wouldn’t be smiling about it today. Or worrying about the temptation of Vestal Virgins, for that matter.
The hook caught on the edge of the wall on the first throw, and Erik paused to listen for any reaction from inside the garden. Hearing nothing, he scrambled up the side, the sinewy muscles of his arms lifting his weight with practiced ease. When he reached the top, he dislodged the hook and let it drop to the grassy ground below, the row of hedges hiding it from any onlookers who might happen by.
He peered over the edge. A pair of lictors, elite guards of Rome’s top magistrates, walked along the far side of the huge garden; they must have just come from the main house. Everything about them radiated danger and alertness, from the tension in their well-muscled arms to the eyes that restlessly scanned the garden around them. They’d nearly failed their master once. They obviously didn’t plan to let it happen a second time. Erik hadn’t expected any guards inside the home, but Caesar had obviously increased his security since the assassination attempt the week before.
Erik’s eyes narrowed when he saw the weapons the guards carried. He’d forgotten that the Dictator was the one Roman official whose protectors were permitted to carry axes inserted just above the center of their fasces – the tightly bound bundles of wooden rods that all lictors carried – within the sacred boundaries of the city. His task had just become a whole lot deadlier.
Ducking his head below the lip of the wall, Erik tried not to think about how exposed he was, hanging from the side of one of the most prominent buildings in all of Rome. He could hear the guards’ footsteps echoing as they walked around the loop of the garden path. Slowly. Far too slowly. Erik’s arms burned, and his hands started to sweat and sting from gripping the rough plastered edge. He struggled to keep his breathing silent. The footsteps grew louder as the guards approached the spot where Erik hung twenty feet above. Were one of them to look up, he’d see several fingers and a black metal hook sprouting from the top of the wall. And then things would get ugly fast.
Another set of footsteps caught Erik’s attention and he cocked his head slightly, trying to locate the source. Someone was coming up the Via Sacra. He heard soft chatter and a feminine giggle. A couple out for an evening stroll. Judging from the sound, he had maybe twenty seconds before they rounded the corner. And then he could only hope that they were a very nearsighted couple or that they saw nothing unduly concerning about a black-clad man hanging from the wall of their leader’s home. A leader who had recently been the target of a failed political coup.
Erik’s fingers began to slip. He tried to dig his nails in, but the hard stuccoed surface gave him no purchase. A sharp pain shot through his hand as one of his nails bent backward. He couldn’t hold on much longer. The footsteps from the street grew louder. Ten seconds left, maybe less. Erik chanced a quick look over the top of the wall.
The guards had passed by, backs turned to the section of wall from which Erik watched. Erik wished he could wait until they were safely out of sight inside the main building, but he’d run out of time. As he kicked one leg up and pushed himself over the wall, he saw the couple appear from around the wall of the Regia. And then he was falling.
Something in his knee gave way as he landed and his leg twisted painfully under him. He fell sideways behind the bushes lining the garden path, biting his lip to keep from crying out. His head bounced against the grassy ground and pinpoints of light flickered around the edge of his sight. He blinked to clear his vision then quietly rose to one knee, stifling a groan as his injured leg protested every movement.
Through the tangled branches of the bushes and other plants that lined the path, Erik saw the lictors near the arched entrance to the house. The one on the right turned and directed a swift stream of Latin at his partner, who nodded curtly before disappearing into the building. The first guard took his fasces in both hands and started back down the path.