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Tour: JULIA PRIMA (Roma Nova #8) by Alison Morton

Book details:


Series: Roma Nova

Author: Alison Morton

Publication Date: August 23rd, 2022

Publisher: Pulcheria Press

Page Length:335 pages

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“You should have trusted me. You should have given me a choice.”

AD 370, Roman frontier province of Noricum. Neither wholly married nor wholly divorced, Julia Bacausa is trapped in the power struggle between the Christian church and her pagan ruler father.

Tribune Lucius Apulius’s career is blighted by his determination to stay faithful to the Roman gods in a Christian empire. Stripped of his command in Britannia, he’s demoted to the backwater of Noricum – and encounters Julia.

Unwittingly, he takes her for a whore. When confronted by who she is, he is overcome with remorse and fear. Despite this disaster, Julia and Lucius are drawn to one another by an irresistible attraction.

But their intensifying bond is broken when Lucius is banished to Rome. Distraught, Julia gambles everything to join him. But a vengeful presence from the past overshadows her perilous journey. Following her heart’s desire brings danger she could never have envisaged…

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Julia and her father are attending a poetry evening hosted by Quietus. So far, she’s loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, Deodatus, her (inadequate) ex-husband and his uncle, Eligius, the local bishop, are present. So far, she has ignored them.

To my disappointment, nobody recited Ausonius’s Mosella, but Father’s eyes sparkled when one of his former tentmates in the Legio II Italica gave a long, rousing passage from Vergilius’sAeneid. Some of Horace’s odes were spoken by one of the decuriones from the town council; he matched the poet’s urbane, witty manner with his own. Unfortunately, the whole tone of the evening was depressed by one of the bishop’s keen followers reading a panegyric about a Christian nobody had ever heard of martyred by Emperor Diocletian. I hid a yawn behind my hand and played with my bracelets. Apulius fixed his gaze on the back wall with a stony expression on his face. I was sure then he didn’t follow the Christos. Thank the gods.

Sure that every single stone was in its place in my bracelets, I looked up and caught him watching me. He didn’t smile, but he wasn’t frowning either. Those eyes. Maybe it was being surrounded by the flow of words or Ausonius’s love poem earlier, but I felt a warmth from him that wasn’t anything to do with lust. It seemed to envelop me, almost to protect me. I knew I would be safe with him. I could trust him.

Father nudged me. I broke away from Apulius’s gaze. I was being fanciful.

‘Look out,’ Father muttered and glanced across the room. I followed his glance. At the far end of the seating, Deodatus stood, then strutted to the front of the room. I frowned and fidgeted in my seat. Father reached out and took my hand in both of his. Several people glanced at us, then back at Deodatus. He bowed first to his uncle who smiled back and nodded as if to give his nephew permission to begin.

He read the first few lines, pausing a little too dramatically here and there. It was a short pompous reflection on Roman domestic virtues. After acknowledging some desultory applause from the audience, he looked directly at me and launched into one of Tibullus’s elegiac love poems about his love, Delia. This was so unlike anything he’d ever read when we’d been married. Hearing his cold, awkward voice reciting emotions alien to him, I didn’t know whether to laugh or be sorry for him. The poet described his tempestuous love for an unattainable and unfaithful woman of dubious social standing, to whom he figuratively enslaves himself.

But all pity for him fled as he fixed his gaze on me and continued with lines which complained about how fickle and luxury-loving she was and how she deceived her husband. He would forgive her if she left and came to be with him, Tibullus, where she belonged.

I heard a few gasps and murmurs from the other guests. I sat up rigid in my seat staring at him. I felt the heat rising up through my entire body. How could he embarrass me like this? How dared he address me in such terms? I wanted to strike him to the ground, but I couldn’t move. My hands trembled and Father pressed the one he was holding.

‘Steady!’ my father whispered. ‘Don’t react.’

Others started calling out to him to stop and sit down. Even Quietus protested, but Deodatus ploughed on. After another minute, he stopped. The audience fell silent. He rolled up his scroll, then stretched his hand out to me. I fixed my gaze on his white hand with its polished nails, remembering its flabby touch on my skin, and shivered in revulsion.

‘Come, wife. Now!’ he commanded, advancing towards me.

Father was on his feet and stepped in front of me, towering over Deodatus. He was so close he was almost touching the younger man’s robe. I couldn’t see my father’s face, but the cords on the back of his neck stood out and his shoulders were flexed back.

‘How dare you importune my daughter!’ he thundered. His words resounded round the room. ‘She divorced you. Twice. That is final.’ His shoulders rose and fell as he took a deep breath. ‘Now leave this room while you still live.’

I moved half a step to the right. Deodatus looked as if he’d been blasted by a mountain storm. He stumbled backwards. His eyes were narrowed and his pale skin even whiter than usual. The bishop was by his side almost instantly.

‘Now, prince,’ the bishop said in his most mellow voice, ‘let us not quarrel in front of friends.’

‘Keep out of this, Eligius,’ Father growled, not turning his head away from Deodatus. ‘Except you can take your young whelp home and keep him out of my sight forever.’

‘Once he has his wife by his side, his companion under God, I’m sure that will be his pleasure,’ Bishop Eligius said in a soft, to me oily, voice.

Father turned his fierce gaze on the bishop.

‘I have no quarrel with you, Eligius, but I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour or the continuation of a private quarrel in public.’

The bishop merely smiled back but said nothing. Nobody else said a word. Some of the other male guests stood, but one or two women grasped their husbands’ hands pulling them back down to the seats and out of the conflict.

Father crossed his arms. His gold armlets reflected the flames of the wall torches. He waited. The audience watched, mesmerised as if this was another performance. After several minutes, Father turned, took my hand and nodded to Quietus who now stood up along with many of the male guests including Apulius. Quietus looked at Eligius, the rest of the audience, even Apulius, but eventually dragged his gaze back to Father. Quietus shifted his weight from one foot to the other and his fingers, heavy with rings, plucked at the embroidery on his robe.

‘Now, prince, I’m sure we’ll all be better for sitting down to compose ourselves,’ he said in a hurried and nervous voice. ‘Please—’

‘No,’ Father growled. ‘Thank you, Quietus,’ he added as an afterthought. ‘The air here has turned rancid. I’ll bid you good evening.’

He shot Deodatus such a caustic look that my former husband should have been destroyed on the spot and left only a small damp residue on Quietus’s veined marble floor. Father turned and made his way towards the door with me in his wake. I was breathing calmly again and lifted my head in the air and pulled my shoulders back. I was damned to Tartarus if I was going to let the Virunum busybodies see I was at all disconcerted by Deodatus’s ridiculous antics. But I blinked hard to stop any tears escaping.

Two feet in front of the doorway, Father stopped. The tall wooden doors were closed. Two men wearing chain mail shirts over their tunics and breeches, and helmets, blocked the way with crossed staves. They appeared to be military.

‘Get out of my way,’ Father ordered and flicked his fingers at them. His voice would have made even barbarians’ stomachs turn liquid. One man flinched, the other looked down, then glanced towards the bishop. I turned just in time to see Eligius give a tiny shake of his head. I saw a smile on his face, nearly hidden by his beard. I gasped. Eligius had planned this expressly to humiliate my father.

Nobody moved. My father ruled here but Eligius was the coming man according to some. But no supposedly pious man should play such a trick. I opened my lips to protest but stopped as I saw Apulius advancing towards us. He had arrived earlier in full uniform, presumably straight from duty. Now his hand rested on the grip of an antique gladius. It looked ceremonial, matching his polished mail shirt. He walked slowly but deliberately, full of confidence as if the power of a whole Roman field army was behind him. The guests parted like sheep. He stopped and bowed to Father.

‘Allow me to escort you, prince,’ he said. He narrowed his eyes.

‘Thank you, tribune,’ was all Father said.

Apulius stepped in front of him and gave the two men a sneer as only a patrician could, straight down his Roman nose. They hesitated for a second, shrank back.

‘Open the door, or I’ll have you flogged,’ he said in the coldest voice I could remember hearing for a long time.

Alison Morton writes award-winning thrillers featuring tough but compassionate heroines. Her nine-book Roma Nova series is set in an imaginary European country where a remnant of the ancient Roman Empire has survived into the 21st century and is ruled by women who face conspiracy, revolution and heartache but with a sharp line in dialogue.

She blends her fascination for Ancient Rome with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, historical and thriller fiction. On the way, she collected a BA in modern languages and an MA in history.

Alison now lives in Poitou in France, the home of Mélisende, the heroine of her latest two contemporary thrillers, Double Identity and Double Pursuit. Oh, and she’s writing the next Roma Nova story.

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Tour hosted by: The Coffee Pot Book Club

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