A young herbalist is forced into a world of decadence and corruption when Nero commands her to become his personal poisoner.
Locusta of Gaul is a shadowy historical figure whose exploits/poisonous deeds remain only conjectures. It’s a story about the consequences of dangerous knowledge, the importance of friendship, and the search for fulfillment.
THE EMPEROR’S ASSASSIN
Letter written during Imperial Roman Empire: 64 AD
Monster. Enchantress. Executioner. These are the names I have been given. All false. Do not believe the lies.
I was merely a woman with few choices, and one must often do the unthinkable to survive. Women’s options are limited in this world of men with their carnal and corrupt desires.
Such cruel realities did not always taint my life.
Long ago, unfettered by responsibility, I enjoyed the indulged childhood of the elite. Playing in terraced gardens, splashing in marble fountains, riding ponies, reading Ovid and Cicero, my thoughts fixed only on tomorrow’s amusements.
This pampered life ended when I was introduced to my betrothed, a man of wealth and position. Three years later, I found love with another. For a young woman of esteemed birthright he was most unsuitable.
A year later, a family complication resulted in my leaving our tranquil countryside to travel into the Den of Hungry Lions.
In this city of greed, politics, lust, and power the gods cursed me with an infamous occupation.
Murder by poison.
My herbal potions hastened corrupt politicians, vengeful brothers, wicked sisters, ailing elders, faithless wives, and abusive husbands to their funeral pyres.
And lovers. Quite a few lovers. Lovers, apparently, are expendable vanities for the wealthy.
Most were evil incarnate. Cold-blooded senators plotting against the Empire. Heartless miscreants impatient to benefit from their spouse’s death. Depraved lovers extracting justice for a fleshly wrong.
The others did not deserve such an early end. I mourned their deaths and my burnt offerings at the temples were feeble attempts to assuage my guilt.
I was not present during every untimely death, but oftentimes I was commanded to confirm their demise. A few perished in rapturous delight as their life force ebbed away. Others melted away in a daze of dreams.
Some died while gasping for air, others expelling liquid excrement. Their vomit and convulsions remain a horrid memory. Their anguished faces continue to haunt my dreams, and their tormented cries for help are forever a lance upon my heart.
My victims’ deaths came at the capricious command of a ruthless emperor. A sadistic, suspicious, jealous emperor.
Nero. My guardian, erstwhile lover, and patron.
His cowardly death was music to my soul.
Though my deeds were vile, I am not a monster. Trust neither the whispers in the Forum nor the gossip at banquets. They are untruths fabricated by vengeful enemies, spurned lovers, and grieving spouses. Some will claim I am responsible for ten thousand murders. This is a preposterous falsehood perpetuated by the new Emperor.
I am weary of Roman emperors. Nero, Claudius, Caligula, and Octavian held sway over the world. They were capricious and ill-advised.
Corrupt counselors, solicitous clientalia, power-hungry families, and scheming lovers all tug at the hem of an Emperor’s tunic. All speaking silver words from dirty mouths. Tongues dipped in honey to sweeten sour supplications. Challenge this senator. Murder that noble. Seduce this wife. Demand a war. Levy a tax. Occupy a country. Assassinate a king. An emperor’s ears must burn with the devious recommendations and fruitless petitions he hears.
Pay no heed to those who speak ill of me. They are ignorant of the good I have done; unaware of the lives I saved. There was one in particular whose message of hope is certain to be remembered through the ages. One who gave me strength in my darkest days.
As I write this the new Emperor vows to kill all those in Nero’s favor. Should the Roman soldiers find me, they will plunge a sword through my heart. And you, my dearest, will never know the truth. I write this so that you might understand the choices I made. I seek neither pity nor condemnation, but believe it more worthwhile to shed light upon the path of poison that led me to become the Emperor’s assassin.
Weeds and Wedlock
Northern Province of Roman Empire
Sixteen years earlier
I skipped down the hall eager for father to confirm the news. The summons to his office meant only one thing.
At the curtained entrance I paused to peek inside. Hunched over a desk, father stared at a parchment, the late morning sun giving a glow to the marble surface.
Father glanced up. “Tonight, Locusta, you meet your future husband.” He frowned, eyes dropping to the document.
“This makes you unhappy?” I fussed with gold bracelets.
“No, my heart is glad!” His hand swept over the desk. “This is the source of my unhappiness. Taxes! Rome bleeds us dry. Claudius may have added to Roman coffers by way of new conquests but he sucks profits from hardworking citizens to finance his projects!”
I approached hesitantly, noted his twinkling eyes and intelligent expression. Father was alert and lucid today.
“What projects?” I cared nothing about the matters of politicians, such enterprises being far removed from my life. Nevertheless, I wanted to act as a woman who would soon wed a wealthy noble. “Do they concern Rome?”
“Bah! Claudius is a drooling, limping fool who imagines himself a great builder. Aqueducts! A new port! A lake-draining tunnel! Ridiculous! And we pay for it!” His hand smacked the desk. “He’s as bad as Caligula!”
I stepped back, surprised by his anger.
“Come daughter, do not let the ravings of an old man mar this lovely day.” He beckoned me forward.
I circled the desk to stand beside him. He wrapped his arms around my waist, and I kissed the top of his smooth head.
“Like Claudius and the rabble in Rome, we too should celebrate Rome’s 800th anniversary. And there’s no better time to meet your future husband than while drinking wine from our vineyard and feasting on capon.” He looked up, beaming with fatherly pride. “Faustinus is marrying the most beautiful woman in Gaul. With a beauty far exceeding Venus and a fair knowledge of healing plants, you will make a commendable wife. Expect a large gift tonight. Jewelry worthy of your new status, perhaps?”
I clapped my hands together like a child before remembering more dignified gestures were expected.
“Now, away young bride, your father has unpleasant business to finish.” He flapped his hand dismissively, a signal my presence was no longer required.
I hurried from the office, into the hall, and past the sunlit atrium. Should my bridegroom present such a jeweled token this night, custom demanded my father secure the agreement with a sizable dowry.
I pushed aside the heavy drape hanging from my bedroom’s doorway. “Pricilla!”
My favorite slave sat by the sunlit window, her head bent over a stola draped across her lap. She glanced up and smiled.
Father had purchased Pricilla after mother’s death. She was fourteen years old at the time. Her sole responsibility was caring for me. In addition to her nanny duties, she acted as nurse, tutor, and confidante.
Pricilla was educated. She taught me to read, write, and calculate sums. These were studies frowned upon by father who thought women had little use for such knowledge. With amber eyes sparkling of mischief and bronzed skin that softened full cheeks, Pricilla was lovely to look upon. She believed the other servants jealous of our close relationship, but I thought they resented her dark looks and sensuality. She made no secret of her sexual dalliances with other house slaves. Despite her provocative behavior, I loved her as much as my own family.
I threw myself on the bed. “I meet Faustinus tonight.”
“What do you know of him?”
“Only that his first two wives died.”
“Then he is old.” Pricilla set the stola aside, crossing the room with languid steps.
I took her outstretched hand, squeezed soft fingers. “I hope not. I prefer a handsome young husband.” It was an unrealistic dream for a girl of my social class.
“The family of Parisii is too wealthy to allow a love match. Faustinus will be old and wrinkled and you will have to lay with him and bear many children.”
I scowled. “You never had to lay with old men!” Although it was not men whom Pricilla favored.
“I did long ago. I was forced to be with several displeasing men. More than several. I dare say I had my fill of men.” Pricilla sat beside me. “You will take me with you to your new home?”
“Of course.” I pulled her forward, kissing her full on the lips. “We will both need you.”
“For what reason shall husband and wife need my services?”
“If Faustinus is as old as you foretell, then I will require your knowledge of plants to help him perform his husbandly duties. And if he is ugly as you say, I will need a potion to make me a willing wife!”
“You know how to make those tonics, Locusta.”
“I may know the plants to mix but I have no knowledge of love. What should I expect on the wedding night? Please! You have experience in the art of love.”
“I have no experience in love, dear one, but I am skilled in the erotic arts. Love is a feeling of the heart, fornication, an action of the body.”
I frowned. “I demand you disclose some small detail!”
“Marital relations between a man and woman can be wonderful.” Pricilla offered an indulgent smile. “You will be Faustinus’ third wife, I’m certain he will prove a skilled lover.”
“Please! Share something—some detail of the act! What does it feel like? What must I do?”
“Your marriage to Faustinus is not until spring, too long a time to spend worrying over such matters. And if you should persuade me to tell you, forcing me to reveal too much, he will question your virginity. Then he will divorce you and send you back to your father in shame!” Pricilla pulled me off the bed. “No more questions! If you are meeting your betrothed tonight, I suggest you begin preparing. After bathing and pampering beauty treatments, your sweet-smelling skin will give you the glow of a goddess.”
I stomped from the room, marble halls echoing with my continued pleas for marital enlightenment.
“Hush, child,” Pricilla scolded as we passed father’s study.
Ducking under the drapery separating the bathing chamber, a steamy cocoon enveloped my body. I breathed deeply. Just outside a linden tree released its fragrance, perfuming the room’s moist air.
Father built the baths several years ago, insisting that scrupulous cleanliness was a necessary luxury. Proud of his baths, he showed the columned annex to all our friends and family.
I stepped into a warm circle of light, sunshine pouring through the domed ceiling’s round aperture. A female servant followed us inside and began fussing with folded towels on the bench. She knew exactly the number I required.
I pulled off my tunic, tossing it to the floor. Pricilla helped remove the strap around my breast. Released from the soft leather, my bosom sprung forth.
“You should forgo this tonight.” She held the soft binding between two fingers and cocked her head.
I snatched the leather from her hand and giggled. “Perhaps I shall.”
Pricilla lifted each breast, cupping them in her hand. A slow smile spread across her face. “Your husband will most certainly approve. Use such weighty assets to your advantage.”
I threw the binding to the floor.
“Now, my beautiful charge, the new hairstyle I have in mind may require additional time to achieve.” Pricilla pointed to the first pool.
I stepped inside, watching as my breasts floated weightless in the water. This swelling bosom had prompted father and Aunt Diana to locate a suitable husband.
“Juno herself is envious of you. Voluptuous breasts, narrow waist, wide hips. Your body pays homage to the goddess of fertility. Your future husband will be most pleased. One look at his lovely new wife and he will have no need of my aphrodisiacs.”
Eyes closed as I rested against the pool’s marble rim, I dreamed of being the mistress of a great estate until Pricilla’s comment spoiled my reverie.
“Your father grows worse. His lucid moments grow fewer.”
“You give him the herbs, do you not?”
“No tonic heals his condition; it only delays the inevitable.”
“What’s to become of the vineyard? Varinius is daft! He cannot assume father’s role!”
My brother, the eldest, was a pleasant oddity, his behavior and manner unusual. Pricilla said she met his kind once before. Varinius avoided socializing, rarely made eye contact, and loud noises caused him anxiety. He walked on his tiptoes and laughed indiscriminately. We often found him lying between rows of vines, daydreaming the afternoon away. Father had since given up procuring Varinius a wife. A fact unnoticed by my brother as he had little desire for sexual love. Unlike me.
Pricilla stroked my head. “Varinius is not simple-minded. He is good with numbers and counts grape yields with speed and accuracy.”
“True words, but who will manage father’s estate after I wed Faustinus?”
“Do not concern yourself. In less than a year you belong to another man and will be busy with wifely duties!”
I sighed and clutched her hand. The cool water felt refreshing on this hot day.
Pricilla shared gossip to pass the time until I emerged from the first bath. As water ran down my legs to puddle at my feet, Pricilla wrapped a sun-warmed towel around me.
I proceeded to the second bath. The warm pool was my favorite.
With my head resting on a pillow, body floating in peaceful suspension, fanciful visions of nuptial ceremonies hastened the sun across an afternoon sky.
I imagined donning the orange veil and saffron-colored wrap. I dreamt of my joy when signing the marriage contract and sacrificing a goat.
I looked forward to the sacred customs. Aunt Diana assured me that as the nuptials drew near, the rituals would be revealed. I already knew a few. Married women relatives would stand by my side demonstrating the proper method for smearing the doorpost with oil. They would also confirm the number of times I touched the hearth.
I hoped to be as blessed in marriage as Aunt Diana. Her husband, Amando, only ten years older, doted upon her, lavishing her with jewels, costly trinkets, and exotic perfumes.
When mother died, my aunt came to Father’s rescue, assuming the motherly role, for father’s vineyards kept him far too occupied to bother with maternal responsibilities.
Aunt Diana made sure we performed all the rites of passage, observed religious holidays, attended festivals, found tutors, and threw parties. She hosted a great banquet for Varinius to mark his entry as full Roman citizen. She even accompanied father to the Hall of Records for the official enrollment.
Try as she might, Diana could not find a suitable wife for my brother. Word of his odd behavior and personality made securing an aristocratic wife unlikely.
After emerging from a long soak, another slave oiled, massaged, and scraped my skin. A relaxing immersion in the hot pool completed my ablutions.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent preparing for the dinner party.
“You are dreamy-eyed.” Pricilla dried my waist-length hair with an absorbent cloth.
“My dreams come true tonight.”
“You deserve nothing less.”
She unsnarled my dark curls with an ivory comb and applied lavender oil to calm the unruly mane.
Pricilla braided strands of hair, coiling and weaving them into an elaborate style. “Which stola will you wear?” She secured the tendrils with a pearl-tipped pin.
“This is most becoming.” I pointed to a garment. The fine linen might keep me cool while dining but offered little relief against the heat of my fevered anticipation.
Pricilla draped the sea blue linen tunic over my shoulders. “A perfect choice for such an occasion.” She fussed with the pleats before securing jewel-encrusted broaches.
Pricilla wound a shimmering sash around my waist, then stepped back to view her handiwork.
“Lift your arms.” She tugged on the linen, pulling the material until its length no longer swept the floor. “Perfect.”
“Almost.” I selected pearls from a lion-footed chest, passing several lengthy strands to Pricilla to secure at my throat.
“Such an important dinner requires cosmetics.” Pricilla dabbed ochre-colored balm on lips and cheeks. “Be still.” Her steady hand drew the thinnest black line around my eyes. “No goddess is your equal this night, Locusta.”
She held a polished metal plate before me.
The face staring back appeared knowing and womanly. Coal-lined eyes blinked once. The make-up gave my features a depth and luster of one far more worldly. Rouged skin accentuated high cheekbones. Rosy lips beckoned for a stolen kiss. Would my mother approve of the young woman I had become?
Mother had died in this villa, her third child’s entrance into the world soaked in blood. Father said the midwife could not stop the scarlet flow. That was eleven years ago. Camilla, my father claimed, was the very vision of his wife. Fair-haired and ivory-skinned, radiant features matching a lighthearted personality. She was yielding and amenable. The opposite of me in both temperament and appearance.
I favored father’s family with my olive skin, dark eyes, aquiline nose, and high cheekbones. “Exotic,” Pricilla declared when I complained of my features.
Pricilla draped a sea-green mantel across my left shoulder, wrapping its length around my back before adjusting it over my right arm. “Faustinus will be smitten!”
“Bracelets and anklets?”
“Of course! Music of the gods will announce your entrance into the room!” Pricilla lifted the lid on the carved wood box, long fingers lifting and selectively discarding the gleaming jumble.
“I require a moment.” The sound of jingling bangles attended me as I moved toward the slim window.
An orange sun hung low in the sky, its radiance bathing the garden patio outside my room. The statue of Bacchus cast a long shadow over the fountain, one chiseled marble arm stretching forth with an offer of grapevines.
It was time to appear in the dining room. My betrothed waited. I breathed in the evening air, spun around, and collided with Camilla.
“Father said a timely arrival is long overdue. Everyone is present. Everyone!” Camilla’s chin dropped as she gazed through blonde eyelashes. A tiny giggle escaped from her dry lips.
I gathered my younger sister in my arms, revealing no signs of my true disquiet. Older sister bravado on display, I chucked her gently on the chin. “I must make an entrance; it will make my appearance ever so much more grand. At least, that’s the effect Pricilla promised.”
Pricilla tucked a disobedient lock back into my coiffure. “Hmph!”
“Are you dining with us?”
“Father says I am permitted to dine with the adults but only if I sit on a chair! I am almost a woman! Any day now, I know it! I refuse to eat on a chair like a child or slave! I told Father I must recline on the couch with the other guests or I will not attend!” Camilla squirmed from my embrace, placed two hands firmly on narrow hips.
As much as she might wish otherwise, Camilla was still a child. She paid scant attention to her appearance, her hair tousled from running, her tunic hem spotted with mud from the vineyard.
“Maybe if you bathed and Pricilla adorned your hair…” A quiet cough alerted me to another presence.
A female slave hovered nervously at the doorway. “Dominus summons you.”
I hugged Camilla, but my gaze met Pricilla’s. Her eyes shone with love and pride. For a fleeting moment, I imagined they reflected the spirit of mother’s approval.
Good wishes acknowledged, I hurried through the hall toward my future.
Waning light threw ominous shadows across the marble tiles causing me to shiver with anticipation. I passed a slave lighting tall bronze lamps that stood like so many centurions in the corridor. Another servant waited behind him with a flask of olive oil. Each new-lit lamp chased away my fears.
I proceeded through the atrium where busts of long dead ancestors whispered glad tidings of health and fertility from atop stone pedestals.
With each step, I shed the vestiges of youth so that I might cloak myself with a woman’s temperament. I prepared to look upon the face of destiny.
Merry sounds of laughter floated into the hall like a gleeful summons. Which happy voice belonged to my future husband?
I hovered near the entrance, suddenly frightened by an unexpected thought made obvious by its simplicity. I would soon wed and manage a household, bear children, weave clothes, and honor the demands of my husband. Faustinus would expect me to host dinner parties and preside over the estate when business sent him away. Such was the life of a patrician woman. Until my death.
For the briefest moment I envied Camilla. Resented her unencumbered youth, her life free of societal expectations and wifely duties.
The clatter of utensils jarred me from wistful thoughts. With a courageous breath, I threw my shoulders back and sauntered into the room with all the confidence I could muster.
(end of chapter)