75 BC on an island in the Mediterranean, a few miles north of Crete. Helena, the sybil's assistant has problem. Not only has her aunt the sybil collapsed, but also pirates are seeking to further their influence on the island and Helena, masquerading as the sybil was manipulating into allowing captured Roman soldiers to have shelter in the temple while they wait for their ransoms to arrive. And despite her hatred for Rome and all it stands for, Helena finds herself attracted to the tribune Marcus Livius Tullio. Will their passion destroy everything she holds dear?***
You can read the start of the book here.
In this excerpt, Tullio has arrived at the temple, and Helena discovers her problems are getting worse instead of better...
"The sibyl made no mention of this when she returned." Helena tapped the tablet against her mouth. She must say nothing to indicate who was at the quayside. After all that, she could not give into her temper. She had to stay calm. "No mention at all."
The sailor with his gold ring in one ear leaned forward. His finger twisted a strand of his greasy beard. Helena struggled not to recoil in disgust.
"These men are dangerous, my lady. You will need extra help," he said. "See how they seek to defy you. If they could, they would be beating their swords against their shields to signal the start of battle."
"The sibyl would have informed me if she felt in danger," she repeated, disliking the man more with each word he uttered. The good Captain Androceles had set a crude trap, one which she had no intention of blundering into. These Roman soldiers were not going to be a pretext for stationing his armed men within the temple. "We are not without protection."
"I tell the truth, Lady," the seafarer whined. "And as you were not there, will you trust the word of a Roman or the word of your ally?"
"I trust the sibyl's judgment. Kybele guides her." Helena's fingers tightened around the tablet, snapped it in two. The faint crack brought her back to her senses. Any more provocation, she'd start blurting out the whole story.
"But the captain is only thinking of your welfare." Gold Earring continued his protest and the rest of the seafarers echoed his sentiments.
"The lions roam the grounds at night," Helena said as if he had not spoken. "We have our guards during the day. Above all Kybele protects and defends this temple. I doubt the Romans will be foolish enough to abuse our hospitality and risk the wrath of Kybele. Where would they go? All the triremes and boats are guarded. The harbor provides the only way on or off the island."
Her gaze met Tullio's steady one.
How dangerous was he? She remembered his fingers on her hand, the way the tingles dashed up her arm. Her whole body seemed to be aware of him in a way she had not felt before. She offered a prayer up to Kybele that her face showed none of her disquiet.
"The captain's concern is solely for the temple," Gold Earring said, his hand going to where his sword belt normally hung.
"The temple thanks you for your concern." She crossed her arms and squared her jaw. Perhaps she should be grateful to the Romans for showing her Androceles's naked ambition. "But I shall trust the Sibyl's judgment. You have delivered the guests. You may return to your captain."
"Captain Androceles has ordered that we remain as guards, in case the Romans try anything." The seafarer planted his feet firmly and rocked back and forth. The other seafarers bristled. "I must respectfully request for our swords to be returned. We desire to provide the proper protection for the Sibyl."
Helena's arms started to tremble. Androceles's stratagem was obvious to any who had spent time a latrunculi board. If his men became guards at the temple, he would try to dictate the Sibyl's pronouncements, destroy her aunt's carefully built neutrality between rival factions of sailors. All because she had made an error.
"You may thank the good captain from me but when we need assistance, the Sibyl will ask for it." Helena increased the volume of her voice so that it echoed through out the antechamber. She knew the guards in vestibule would here and start their final preparations. Captain Zeno had believed six months ago but would Gold Earring be so gullible? Did she dare take the risk of revealing the true extent of the temple's weakness? "The temple is a place of peaceful contemplation. No arms are allowed to sully that. The Sibyl refuses to allow the Temple to be desecrated."
"I am very grateful to the Sibyl for providing us with lodging as we wait for the tribute," Tullio stepped forward, his metalled sandals ringing out on the mosaic floor.
Helena ignored him. Romans were less a danger than Gold Earring. He had to leave.
"Your job has finished. The guests have been delivered safely. Go," Helena used the same intonations her aunt used when she was declaring what the goddess wanted. Forceful but with no hint of desperation she beginning to feel.
Gold Earring took a step towards the gateway, then hesitated. "Captain Androceles ordered--"
"This is not the captain's ship." She moved towards the main altar. In her mind, she recalled the number of times, Aunt Flavia impressed on her to the need to glide and not run. Gold Earring must have no hint of what was to come. If it taught the Roman with his knowing smile a lesson as well, so much the better. "Perhaps you will believe after a small demonstration but I warn you, Kybele protects her own."
She gave a small clap of her hands and then pulled the curtain cord and allowed the mirrors to show. Instantly temple guards swarmed into the vestibule and stood in line behind Helena, each brandishing a long curved sword. She bit her lip. Hopefully the concealed mirrors and dim light would make Gold Earring think there was twice the number of guards.
"You called, My Lady," the lead guard boomed.
"The seafarer expressed a concern about our ability to look after the Temple properly."
"We have never had any trouble before, Helena."
Tullio took pleasure in watching the pirates shift uncomfortably as Helena stood, head held high in front of her troop of guards. Helena was unexpected. She managed to confront the pirate without flinching. He doubted many women of his acquaintance in Rome would have the courage to do such thing. Most women like his elder sister and his ex-wife would have run screaming before they dared speak back to a man like that.
From where he was standing, he could see the trick she had played with the bronze mirrors. It had been the vogue when he had been a boy and his mother had gone from temple to temple searching in vain for a cure for his younger sister's illness.
The question was whether or not the pirate would know about the trick or would he simply see the images without questioning and leave?
"I had no idea the Temple had that many guards." The pirate uttered before he brought his sandals together and gave an elaborate bow. "Captain Androceles thinks only of your welfare."
"Should the temple be in mortal danger, someone who is of pure heart would blow Neptune's trumpet, and aid would appear." She indicated a large bronze trumpet etched with shells and inlaid with precious stones. "No doubt the good captain has forgotten the legend."
"No doubt." Droplets of sweat shone on the pirate's face.