The villa had been empty.
Vitus had hastened to the once much-lauded home of the late young Leander Maximinus, there to seek the young widow of the man and her bastard child. He had found it cold and empty, but a shell of what it had once been. The beautiful mosaic-encrusted walls had been defaced with hideous graffiti of a most vulgar sort, and the fountains had been stopped up with debris. The goods of the house, including the jewels given by the wretched young Christian to his wife, had long since been taken by gleeful vandals and vagabonds. The silken threads of small, eight-legged monsters ebbed and throbbed in a cold wind which blew choking dust through the rooms of the house. A chill of despair had settled its cold talons into the marrow of Vitus' bones as he beheld that place—once so beautiful and full of love and light—brought so low into such darkness.
Of one thing he was certain—Calliliana Maximinus would never set foot in such a place again.
Vitus left the villa wearily, his heart and his resolve sorely tested and nearly at an end. He knew not the path that his feet took; he saw not the crowds and the curious passers-by who stopped to gape at his cloaked face. He knew only that he had failed in that which he had been commissioned to do, and he saw only the tormented face of the beautiful young widow in his mind.
"Mind your way!" A sharp command roused the attention of the embittered individual, and he looked out from under his shroud-like covering. A small middle-aged man, with a greasy, balding head and a mouth full of rotting teeth, stood looking up at him defiantly and without fear. "You nearly ran me off my feet, you great lumbering idiot!" Vitus' mouth opened into an unseen snarl of rage beneath his covering, and he stepped forward menacingly.
"If I disturbed you, I do indeed ask your pardon. I would request you, however, to be more polite in your reproofs…unless you wish a sharper retort from me." He slammed one hard fist into his opposite palm, and watched with satisfaction as the man backed away slightly.
"I meant no offense, Stranger; I am merely wearied by the jostling of these crowds." Vitus looked up and saw that his meaningless footsteps had taken him to the base of the Coliseum itself.
"Who is racing today?" The man shrugged his shoulders carelessly.
"I know not and I care not. I'm only here to learn more information about the games tomorrow."
"And what makes these games of such interest to you?" The hard grey eyes of the man gleamed like cold iron.
"Christians, Milord. Tomorrow the Emperor means to make for us an example of those miserable creatures…and what an example they shall be!" Vitus directed his attention to the man, his curiosity piqued.
"What kind of games are these Christians to endure?" The little man laughed, his voice, too, was like iron—hard and cold and grating as one metal on another.
"Horrible things, I am told…horrible things nearly too nauseating for one to watch! I believe that the victims are to represent scenes from myths and from history, scenes depicting hero's deaths." Vitus narrowed his eyes at the greasy man, barely able to contain his revulsion towards him.
"And why should this interest you?" An ugly looked filled his eyes.
"I hate the Christians; the emperor has declared that they are attempting to overthrow the empire! Furthermore, it has been noised about that one of the women to be slain is exceptionally beautiful. All sort of speculation about this one is the talk of the Forum—Greek and as lily-fair as a statue, they say, with hair like ropes of fine gold and eyes as the sea. To watch such a one as that perish, if she truly be a Christian, will be more pleasurable to me than having her!" Vitus felt as if he could vomit at the man's hateful words…yet a wild hope filled his breast. Greek…as beautiful as a statue, with hair as fine as gold…this indeed described the woman for whom he had searched so long and so fruitlessly.
"Have you any idea of a way into the prison cells beneath the Coliseum?" The man gazed at Vitus as if he had lost his mind.
"I do not. What business have you there?"
But Vitus had already stridden away towards the entrance to the Coliseum, leaving his hateful informer bewildered and suspicious.
She was alone.
She was alone now as she had been when her mother, the only true friend and relative she had living, had taken her own life.
She was alone now as she had been when she had stood painfully exposed upon the slave-block of the Forum, feeling acutely the wandering gazes of the lascivious man-merchants appraising her beauties for their own pleasure.
She was alone now as she had been when her husband and son, when her friends and her family, had been ruthlessly ripped from her loving bosom.
She was alone now in her cell; her companions had been taken to another to await their fates the next day apart from the lovely newcomer.
And alone she was to wait for death.
Calliliana struggled fruitlessly against her bonds for some time until she grew too exhausted from the effort. She sagged listlessly back against the wall, cringing as she felt the putrid slime from the floor seep through her garment to her skin. The terror in her heart as to what spectacle would be made of her filled her whole body with an apprehension unlike anything she had ever known. The tormented young woman felt almost as if she could vomit, so anxious was she. Yet, she could not weep in her fear. The unshed tears pressed against her eyelids, burned her face and her throat in their eagerness to spring forth and journey down her face. Yet she could not weep.
The door to her cell creaked upon, serenading her with an ominous chorus of rusted hinges and warped iron. Calliliana did not raise her head—she did not wish to look upon the angel of her demise as he grinned evilly down upon her. She saw him in her mind, however…a tall figure, all robed in black, with no perceptible features—save a pair of icy eyes that would stare out at her from the black void which would be his visage.
"Are you Calliliana, wife of the late Leander Maximinus?" a voice inquired brusquely in the dark—a voice which sounded strained and hoarse, as if it concealed some sort of emotion. The young woman shivered at its sound, and knew that she must raise her head.
It—or he—was just as she had feared. The angel was tall and forbidding, his all-concealing cloak the color of a starless night. Calliliana trembled at sight of him with such strength that her fetters rattled furiously against the filthy stone walls. "I am she," she whispered, her voice barely loud enough to be heard even in the stillness of the cell. She moistened her lips deliberately and murmured more loudly, "Will you hasten to tell me what is to be done with me? The suspense, I think, is the worst part of my suffering. If I could but know what they shall do to me…perhaps, oh perhaps, I could better prepare myself for the end!"
"You think I have come to give you tidings of your death?" the strange figure sounded incredulous. Calliliana peered up at him in surprise, attempting vainly to discern his features beneath the covering of night upon him.
"Were you not sent by the warden to prepare me for the arena?" The man shook his head and unfurled a wrinkled scroll from beneath his cloak.
"I am not in the employ of the warden, or of any other man who has aught to do with your execution, Domina. I have come solely as the executor of your late husband." The stranger passed a hand over his brow. "And believe you me; I have sought you long and far. I have traveled through the most wretched cold and the most scorching heat, only to have met with naught at each bitter end. Why, even now the guards would have stopped me from coming to you, had I not been able to verify my citizenship of Rome and the legality of my profession with them." He sighed. "What bitter irony it is that I should find you at the last—alone in a cell, waiting your death, when all my fair tidings are to become meaningless for you!" Calliliana shifted slightly so as to see the unknown with more clarity.
"What tidings have you, Milord?"
"Your husband charged me with the execution of his will, should the time of his death come before yours. This parchment," here the black-robed visitor placed the scroll in Calliliana's lap, "declares you the sole heir to his fortune." The young woman laughed as she saw it, an almost maniacal laugh of hopeless disbelief.
"Ah, how cruel is life! I could have returned home as the honored widow of a great man, rather than as a masterless slave; as an urchin to be tossed once more into the seas of humanity." Her golden head drooped forlornly. "And now it is too late…too late, for I am to die today." As the words left her lips, a fierce shuddering assailed the girl. "Death…I had thought myself ready," she mused aloud, "but not ready, I am assured, of a death such as they will give to me." The stranger cleared his throat.
"Domina, I believe I must be going now. You have the will in your possession…you may do with it as you wish." He bowed slightly to her and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Calliliana cried out after him, as a revelation dawned clear through the cobwebbed fragments of her shattered mind. "You are an executor, are you not?"
"You know the laws of Rome?"
"Of course." A smile of radiant joy lit the features of the woman with such a glowing beauty, an almost fearsome luminescence seemed to emit from her throughout the dimly lit dungeon.
"You came too late to save me, I fear." Her voice fell soft and low and a tear slowly traversed its lonely path down her face. "But what indeed am I? Why is my life more worthy to be saved than that of the next woman…or man?" The black-robed stranger shook his head in confusion.
"I know not of what you speak, Domina…"
"Hear me then." The girl raised herself against the wall enough that she could almost crouch to her knees. "I am sure that my tormentor, Marcus Agrippa, will have it declared in the arena that I am to be condemned to death as Christian." The executor nodded in confirmation. "While I do indeed follow the Way of Christ, that reason alone is not why I shall be put to death." The man looked puzzled.
"I understand not your meaning, Domina." Calliliana trembled in her fervor…would this strange, cloaked intruder believe her tale?
"I have evidence, Milord, evidence and proof that Marcus Agrippa means to slay the Emperor Commodus and usurp his throne!" The tall man took two leap-like steps forward and knelt in front of her.
"These are grave accusations, Domina, grave indeed. They bear the stamp of the most infamous death known to man…no one who commits treason is ever unpunished!" Calliliana nodded.
"Agrippa wishes to slay me before I can reveal what I know to the Emperor."
"Where is this evidence you speak of?" The blood drained entirely from the maiden's face; her emerald eyes stood out against her colorless skin as if they had been painted on.
"My cloak," she whispered, her voice choked by a sob, "They are still within the folds of my cloak!"
"Where is your cloak then?" The woman shook her head sadly, a small smile on her lips.
"Even now, life plays its cruel game against me. He…Marcus Agrippa, Milord…tore my cloak from me when he caught me attempting to escape." The robed stranger stood slowly, shaking his head as he went.
"Then I regret to inform you that I cannot help you at all, Domina. Without substantiation of some form…" Calliliana nodded.
"You have done more than enough, Milord. Your kindness to my husband," her lips trembled, "will not be forgotten." The man bowed and left the girl so suddenly, she wondered if she had simply dreamt that a dark angel had visited her before her demise.
The tatters of Calliliana's black cloak lay in a crumpled heap upon the floor, its ebony folds thundering over a mosaic depicting a sun-filled day. It was that odd bit of irony that first caught the attention of one passing through the room. The individual stooped to pick it up, wondering casually at the way it had fallen. The cloak was ravaged by rough hands, as if in search of condemning secrets that might lie within it. When none could be found, it was lifted and carried away to be disposed of.
Five small glass shards showered down around a small piece of parchment that fell from within its folds.