Rise of the WolfJennifer A. Nielsen
To Mrs. Behunin, 3rd Grade, who planted books within my heart
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ALSO BY JENNIFER A. NIELSEN
My life no longer made sense. At least, not according to the usual rules of logic. But the absence of logic didn't bother me. A strange feeling of peace had come over me once I accepted that the only person I could trust in this world was also trying to kill me.
My grandfather, General Flavius Radulf.
Since he made no secret of his plans for my death, I didn't figure he had much of a reason to lie about anything else. Awful as his plans were, in some ways I was worse than him. Because he'd be a fool to trust me, and he knew nothing of my plans.
Though for now, those plans would have to wait. For, at the moment, the chariot I was driving required my full concentration.
Chariot racing had been Radulf's idea. He got the idea two months ago when he saw me riding the horse in the amphitheater. Back then, all I had cared about was surviving Rome's venatio, and I'd needed an obedient horse to do it. Competing in the chariot races one day had been the furthest thought from my mind.
Yet here I was, driving a team of four horses around the circuit for a practice race and loving every moment of it. Other teams were practicing too, which meant there were several hundred spectators in the audience, hoping for a good show. Hoping to see blood.
My blood, possibly. Because even in practice, I intended to win, and winning drivers always pressed toward the innermost track, where it was fastest, and most dangerous.
Although greens and blues, or even whites, were more popular, I rode as part of the red faction -- Radulf had friends there. Since I was new and had an unfortunate reputation for destroying things, such as the great amphitheater, no other team would even consider me. I wasn't sure what it had cost Radulf in threats or bribery, but while on the track, I wore the red toga. A couple of other red teams were riding today, but they were already behind me.
With eight other teams, the track was crowded, but not as bad as it'd be during the circus, when twelve teams would race for glory, honor, and a small sack of gold. So I took advantage of the lesser numbers and pushed my team of horses inward. A white-cloaked charioteer just ahead glared back at me, and I smiled in return. If he was irritated, then I was doing something right.
Despite my relative inexperience, my practice races had all gone well, though I had yet to be tested in a real race. The Ludi Romani was coming up in a couple of weeks. It was the grandest of all festivals, honoring Jupiter, the highest of the gods, so most Romans would attend at some point. I had to prove myself to be accepted there. If I worked hard to improve my skills, perhaps within a few years I'd be good enough for that race.
The chariot's reins were tied around my waist, which helped me control the horses more instinctively. That was fine, unless we overturned, in which case the horses would drag me to my death. I had a knife in my belt to cut free if necessary, though that wouldn't keep me from being trampled by other teams of horses. Trampling was hardly the way I intended to die, so I had to pay attention now. The man ahead of me shouted some sort of insult as I edged him farther out from the center of the track. Based on his expression, he'd be happy to see me fall. I had few friendships anywhere, but none in the circus.
The man's footing on the floor of his chariot was less secure than he wanted me to believe. I saw him fight for balance every time we made a turn. I didn't struggle with that as much. Back when I'd worked as a slave in the mines, my master, Sal, had often forced me onto steep and narrow paths. I hadn't fallen then, and I wouldn't fall now. Or that was my plan, anyway. The heavy bag hanging from my belt might change things.
I turned again, and the bag swung hard to the left, shifting my weight. My first instinct was to use magic to regain my balance, but I didn't. I couldn't. Once the chariot had straightened out, I reset my feet in the center of the chariot and rode on even harder.
Radulf had stolen my bulla after we fought in the amphitheater, which had taken that magic from me. But he hadn't taken everything. Since our battle, the Divine Star on my shoulder had come to life in ways I'd never felt before. I rarely used the magic from that mark -- I couldn't trust what Radulf would do if he knew I still had magic -- so instead I contained it within me except for the smallest uses, such as comforting my horses. But never to correct my balance. That was far too risky.
"I saw what you did in the amphitheater!" a white-faction charioteer shouted as he tried to pass me. "Will you destroy the circus too if you lose?"
I smiled and urged my horses to block him. "Probably not, since I don't intend to lose!"
"Your chariot is too heavy with that bag. Stupid slave boy, the lead is worth nothing!"
Not to him, it wasn't. But things were different for me. The lead in this bag might save my life.
Romans were fiercely loyal to their preferred factions, possibly even more so than to the empire. Though it was illegal for other games, they often placed bets on the chariot races. To improve their team's chances of winning, they created curse tablets, lead slabs with curses scratched into them. Then they'd nail them to the wall of the circus or bury them in the dirt beneath the track. I collected as many as I could each day, and told Radulf that if the gods didn't see the curses, then the gods couldn't enforce them. It was a stupid lie, but I told it every single night, straight to his face.
Radulf hated that I wore the bag. We'd fought over it since the first day I brought it to the circus, but I didn't care and I wouldn't give in. He'd become convinced that it was a superstition for me, which was far from the truth. There was no room in my life for superstitions. Reality was already dangerous enough.
"Carrying that bag around is ridiculous, and embarrassing for the grandson of a general," he'd said only last night. "Besides, the gods have already cursed you. What more could they possibly do?"
I knew the answer to that question. The gods could stop providing me with curse tablets each day.
Still shouting insults, the white-cloaked charioteer tried to force my team against the wall. I calmed the horses with a wave of my hand and urged them even faster, earning some cheers from the audience. I turned to thank the crowd, and then someone caught my attention.
My younger sister, Livia, was in the stands, behind the senators' box. Her golden curls always stood out in a crowd,
and they did now, as bright as ever. Still, I was surprised to see her here. Since we had come to Radulf's house two months ago, she and I had never been allowed outside at the same time. Radulf thought it would make us more likely to run. I hadn't gotten far in arguing that with him, mostly because we both knew that's exactly what we'd do.
So why was Livia here now, and on her own? As my chariot came closer, she turned to speak to a woman next to her and I realized it wasn't Livia after all. But for the difference in their ages, it was someone who could have been her twin.
My heart lurched into my throat. Only one other person could look so much like Livia. That was my mother, I was sure of it.
"Control your horses or I'll have you thrown off this track!" another charioteer shouted as he passed me by.
"What? Oh -- sorry." I shifted attention back to my horses, who had wandered into the outer track, and then I looked for the gates to pull out of the race. They were behind me, requiring almost a full circuit, so I kept an eye on my mother as much as possible while the next turn came closer.
I realized now that my mother wasn't in conversation with the woman beside her -- she was serving her. And looking at the track whenever she could. Did she recognize me and know I was down here? Or was it simple curiosity about the practice? Maybe the answer didn't make any difference -- after all, she couldn't speak to me without the permission of her mistress. And with Radulf in the stands, it wasn't a good idea for me to approach her either. But for the past five years, I hadn't seen her once, or even known anything about her new life. There was no chance I would let her go now.
The white-cloaked charioteer had edged ahead of me and looked back, yelling, "This will teach you a lesson, boy!" And he steered his team of horses directly into mine, pushing us hard into the wall. My lead horse stumbled, and would take the others with him when he fell. Seven other chariots were behind me. At least one would trample me. Probably on purpose.
I glanced at where I had last seen Radulf, but couldn't see him any longer. Though it would require a greater use of magic to save the horses, it was a necessary risk. As the horses tangled with one another, I brushed my hand sideways, and they immediately regained their footing. It was a relief to release a portion of the magic bottled up inside me, a little less pressure to contain. On the other hand, if Radulf noticed what I'd just done, I would pay for this.
By then, I was able to pull off to the gates, and when I did, I used the knife to cut myself free from the chariot, removed my helmet, and leapt to the ground. While handlers took over the care of my horses, I sprinted off the track, dodging other horse teams when necessary. Then I ran up the stone steps into the stands, toward where my mother had been. But though my heart was pounding and I was completely out of breath, I hadn't been fast enough. I could not see her anymore, nor the woman she had served. Those seats were empty, and no matter how hard I looked, I could not see them anywhere. My mother was gone.
Nic! Why'd you quit the race?"
That was Aurelia's voice, and I turned to see her hurrying toward me, wearing a deep yellow tunic. Her light brown hair was pulled away from her face in a complicated braid that signified her newfound wealth. To see how nice she looked now, it was hard to believe she had once lived in the sewers beneath Rome.
I knew that I had missed her over the last two months, but until this moment, I hadn't realized how much she had become part of my life. It was rude to stare back at her, but I couldn't help it. The fire in her eyes was as bright as ever, as striking as always. Had she asked me a question? I couldn't remember.
"Nic? Are you awake in there?" She was in front of me now, smiling and waving a hand in front of my face.
It didn't make sense, seeing her now. The last time we had been together was after I had fought Radulf in the amphitheater. Senator Horatio, Aurelia's father, had died there. Maybe she didn't blame me for that after all, as I had believed. Because her smile suggested that we were still friends. Was that possible?
"What are you doing here?" I finally asked. A part of me hoped Aurelia would say she had come to see me race. Actually, every part of me hoped that.
"I came ..." she stammered. "Er, we came --"
"Is everything all right? The practice was going so well." That was Crispus, who walked through a nearby archway and stood beside Aurelia. She only gave him a casual glance, telling me far more than I wanted to know. They had come here together. And whatever anger she had supposedly felt toward Crispus before had clearly vanished.
My anger had not.
"I have nothing to say to you," I muttered to Crispus. Then I turned and marched away from him. Now things were beginning to make sense, but not in a good way.
Aurelia hurried down the rows and crossed directly in front of me. "We came to talk to you," she said.
"You came with him?" I pointed to Crispus, still standing several rows above us. "The last time we were all together, he nearly got both of us killed. He succeeded with your father's death, and had me blamed for it."
"Crispus didn't do all that," Aurelia said. "It was his father."
There was truth in her words. Crispus's father, Valerius, had planned it all so he could become the Senate's presiding magistrate, a position of great power that had previously belonged to Senator Horatio. More important, the position also allowed Valerius to inherit the key to unlock a magical amulet he called the Malice of Mars. I didn't know much about it, other than that it would give its bearer victory in battle and that it was hidden somewhere.
The problem was that Valerius never got that key. Everyone seemed to believe Horatio had given it to me before he died, but he didn't. Radulf believed I had it too, one of only a few reasons he was keeping me alive.
Crispus stepped toward me, though he still kept his distance. "You were right to be angry, Nic, and it's understandable if your feelings haven't changed. But even if you disagree with what my father did in the arena, that doesn't make him your enemy."
"Without Radulf's protection, the empire would've executed me by now, all because of your father." I squinted into the sun to finally look at Crispus. "So tell me how he isn't my enemy."
"He came here to save your life." As if to prove it, Crispus pointed across the circus to the imperial box, where Radulf was sitting in close conversation with Valerius.
I swerved on my heels and began marching over to them. I wasn't sure whether Crispus followed me or not, but Aurelia almost immediately caught up to me.
"Believe it or not, Valerius is trying to help you," she said. "It does us no good to be angry with them."
"Us?" I scoffed at that, then said, "Since when did you become friends with Crispus? Was it the same night Valerius had your father killed, or did you wait a whole day first?"
"How dare you?" Aurelia punched my shoulder, and crossed in front of me, forcing me to stop. "My whole life, all I wanted was to get back to my father. You know better than anyone how much I wanted a family! But I walked away from him, because of his terrible plans for Rome." Her tone softened. "Because of his terrible plans for you, Nic. I did that because we are friends. I went into the arena to help you fight, and all I've done since then is try to figure out how to get you away from Radulf."
If that was true, then why hadn't I seen or heard from her? I knew she had tried to help me that day, but she couldn't possibly understand how difficult the last couple of months had been.
I shook my head and walked past her. "So your friendship with Crispus is to help me? Or does he help you instead?"
She caught up again, and this time grabbed my arm. "What is that supposed to mean?"
I checked behind us. Crispus was following, but at a safe distance. It wasn't far enough, though.
I turned back to Aurelia and said, "I know why you're so friendly to him."
She folded her arms. "Really? Why is that?"
"When your father died, he left behind a large fortune. Enough to take care of you for the rest of your life. Except Radulf told me Horatio's
will only provides for you under one condition."
"You know about that?" The way she said it should've been a warning to me to stop talking. But I wasn't that wise.
My eyes darted to Crispus and then back to her. "There's only one way for you to keep your inheritance."
"You still think I only care about money? After all you and I have been through together?"
"We're not together." I nodded toward Crispus. "You came here with him."
"To help you! Nic, I'm trying to be your friend. I am your friend. Why can't you see that?"
My throat tightened, and for a moment, it was hard to speak. Finally, I said, "You were more free when you had nothing. You gave up that freedom for a life of comfort."
She groaned. "And you're any different? The last time we talked, you were going to leave Rome and be free. Now you bask in the comfort of Radulf's home, racing chariots and dining on the finest foods money can buy."
I brushed past her again. "You don't understand."
"Don't I?" She continued at my side. "Why is it wrong for me to have a friendship with a senator and his son when you agreed to live in the home of the man who nearly killed you in the arena? You accuse me of giving up my freedom for comforts, but you have done the very same thing!"
Aurelia took my hand, forcing me to turn back to her. I tried to pull free, but she redoubled her grip. Then as she got a better look at my wrist, her gaze sharpened. "Oh, Nic, what's this?"
I yanked my arm away. "It's nothing."
She grabbed it again and held it up to study it closer. The wrist was red and slightly swollen with scars that never had enough time to heal. "What caused these wounds?" When I wouldn't answer, she said, "Tell me."
"That's me, agreeing to live in Radulf's home."
"Oh. I see." Her voice softened, and for a moment, it was possible to believe that she really did care about me as a friend. "So this isn't your choice."
My eyes darted away, to where Radulf and Valerius were speaking. They glanced over at me, then returned to their huddled conversation. I considered pulling my hand away from Aurelia again, but she was brushing her fingers over the wounds in such a tender way, I suddenly didn't mind that she was holding it.
"We should meet in private tonight and talk," I said. "In the sewers, if you can find the place where I need to meet you."
"I can find it," she said. "Where?"
"Below Radulf's home." Then in a whisper, I added, "Bring the crepundia." That necklace had meant everything to her, once. For her whole life, it had been her only connection to her father. It surprised me that she no longer wore it.