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Blind Ambition (Light in the Empire)

By Carol Ashby

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Chapter 1: A Different Choice

Roman province of Germania Superior, Spring of AD 114

The black stallion danced as Decimus guided him through the gray stone arches of the fortress gate. The big horse tossed his head and shook his mane before stretching his nose out to pull on the reins. Decimus leaned forward to pat his neck.

“Patience, Astro. You’ll get your gallop after we get out of town.”

Tribune Decimus Cornelius Lentulus was leading his troop of six to Argentorate from Mogontiacum, the provincial capital of Germania Superior...again. He’d already traveled the road along the Rhenus six times that year.

As his fidgeting black neared the fork where the road through the western hill country split off from the heavily traveled river road, the corner of his mouth twitched up. The mere thought of another three and a half days riding that same road through the river valley pulled an eye roll and a sigh from him.

He twisted to face the two young officers riding behind him. “Change of plan. I’m tired of the river road. We’ll take the alternate route through the hills. The distance is almost the same.”

As top staff officer of the XXII Primigenia Legion, Decimus often received special assignments that took him between the fortress headquarters of the two legions stationed in that province. This time the provincial governor himself had ordered the surprise inspection of the VIII Augusta, the second legion under the governor’s command. No one expected them at the Augusta’s fortress in Argentorate, so it wouldn’t matter if the trip took a few hours longer than normal. Time to satisfy his curiosity about part of the province he’d never seen before.

Decimus’s glance fell on the box of his scrolls and codices strapped on the pack horse. He always traveled with something to read, so no one suspected what he carried this time. Its secret compartment concealed the confidential documents and gold he was to deliver to the legate commanding the Augusta.

He allowed only his eyes to reveal his satisfaction that Tiberius Cornelius Lentulus, the provincial governor who was also his father, had called it a stroke of genius when he proposed the concealed transport. No thief would find a box of literature interesting, and they would certainly not expect it to hold secrets or treasure.

He turned Astro down the road to the hill country. There was very little traffic, so he nudged his horse into the gallop the spirited animal had been so eager for. A good gallop down a new road―there was no better way to start a four-day ride.

####

Two days later

“Death stalks you today. Twice he will miss. The third time…” The Suebian seller of furs shrugged as his mouth turned down. “I saw the flight of crows this morning. In their cries, Nerthus told me the woman who scoffs at her power would be sorry.”

Valeria shook her head. “Not so, Brukhard. Nerthus has no power over me. God is my protector. If you knew Him as I do, you wouldn’t be afraid of a few crows.”

Her warm gray eyes held his gaze, and his frown relaxed into a half-smile.

The full smile that drew in response brightened her voice. “Whenever you want to know more about Him, I’ll be very glad to tell you. Perhaps you’d like to follow Him, too.”

The Suebian shook his head. “Do you take me for a fool? I trade throughout the province. I see what goes on. Your god doesn’t protect his followers from the wrath of the Eagles. Governor Lentulus hunts them in Mogontiacum and Argentorate. He gives one chance to deny your Jesus and sacrifice to Caesar. Some of the fools refuse. If they’re lucky, he just cuts off their heads. If he’s staging games, they’re his favorite food for his wolves.”

He patted an ample stomach. “You’re a skinny little thing that wouldn’t satisfy a wolf cub, but I’d be a rich meal for a pack. I have no desire to risk that.”

He turned away, and she led her small bay mare into the village green. After hobbling Placida where she could graze, Valeria returned to her cart.

Today she had something special to sell. Yesterday she’d picked the first ripe strawberries. She lifted the basket to her nose and inhaled. The luscious scent drew a smile. The first fruit of the season always brought a good price, and she needed money for new boots for her brother. Galen’s thirteen-year-old feet grew longer every week.

She pulled her vegetable basket from the cart, balanced it on her shoulder, and carried it to her usual place among the roadside vendors. Nine-year-old Rhoda skipped along beside her with the berry basket, her dark-brown braids swinging in time with her steps. Valeria spread out her striped blanket, knelt, and arranged the vegetables in a pretty display while Rhoda placed the berries at the front to tempt hungry shoppers.

The old woman who always sold baskets next to her leaned over and touched Valeria’s hand. “Have you heard what happened? It’s so horrible.”

Valeria took her elderly friend’s hand in her own. The basket weaver’s worried eyes calmed at her touch. “I haven’t heard any news since last market day. What happened?”

“The silver merchant was robbed two days ago on the southern road. They killed him and his whole party. I hope it’s not the raiders again.” The basket weaver pressed an age-spotted hand against her wrinkled cheek. “You drive that road all the time. I worry about you.”

Rhoda inhaled sharply and turned wide eyes on Valeria. “The raiders?”

Valeria stood and wrapped her arm around Rhoda. Her long hair, a light chestnut more gold than brown, brushed Rhoda’s cheek as she planted a kiss on her forehead. It had been three years, but any mention of the raiders who’d killed Rhoda’s parents still filled her little sister’s eyes with dread. Valeria had been only sixteen then, but with God’s help she’d managed to keep the farm going while raising the family alone. Still, it was hard sometimes.

“I doubt it. It’s too long since they attacked our village. It’s probably only some men whose greed has made them murderers, not the raiders at all. Besides, we have nothing worth stealing. Go play with Bertha, and don’t worry about it.”

Valeria’s relaxed eyes and calm smile reassured her adopted sister, and Rhoda skipped off in search of her friend.

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