AT 22 YEARS OLD, Helen Dale became the youngest ever recipient of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. The following extract is from part two of her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, an alternative history set in an industrialised Roman Empire and featuring the trial of Jesus Christ. It’s replete with sex, violence and all things Roman. We were hooked on the first instalment, Rules, and if you like fighting, fornicating and history, we’re sure you’ll enjoy it too. You can purchase both books at wilkinsonpublishing.com.au
The Pit at night was a different proposition from The Pit during the day. At lunch, Cynara had noted the overdone columns and the granite and marble foyer. Romans were incapable of true architectural ugliness, but they had a taste for ornamentation that was challenging when one was drunk. She noticed the tiny yellow lights picking out every detail of sculpture and signage, dancers with gilded skin and oiled tresses on a raised dais in the gaming room, pageboys serving cocktails to customers identified by the Corinthians—different Corinthians this time—manning the front counter. One of the boys approached and presented them with glasses full of something bright blue streaked with yellow. She clinked with Agrippa and felt the concoction bite at the back of her throat. She could see people punting a large ball back and forth in the pool and shouting. It was at that point she noticed that whatever it was they were drinking glowed in the dark once it came into contact with human skin. Agrippa’s lips were cerulean. She caught a glimpse of herself in the glass frontage of the gaming room as the pageboy led them down a wide spiral staircase. So were hers.
The boy took them to a glassed-in observation area set mid-way up a bank of tiered seats. Agrippa pulled her close to him, his fingers raking her side. She looked out over a compact, steepling well, its central point dominated by a fighting square. Above it, a shining metal cage was suspended on a system of chains and pulleys. She’d known what he was planning, but had no idea that there was a cage on this scale in Jerusalem.
At various points around the stands she saw more glassed boxes like theirs, their privileged inhabitants lit up like fireflies thanks to spectral drinks. One woman, she noticed, had a translucent blue-green glow under her chin and in the hollow at the base of her throat. The well—the pit—was smoky and dark, dipped in inky blacks and autumnal browns. The brilliant flashes of light—from flesh, iridescent drinks, glinting metal—stood out against the shadows, a beautiful but disturbing sight. Naked girls—their skin gilded like the dancers upstairs and decorated with what looked like green glittering fish scales—began to bring in finger food and set it down before them. They sashayed to the music—not too loud as yet, but already underpinned by elaborate percussion reverberating up through the floor. Agrippa grinned and fed her a fat black olive. Various acts—singers, mainly—warmed up the crowd as the tiers began to fill. Cynara wondered where all the people were coming from, but then started to recognise faces: her own employees from the Empire, the woman who often served her at the bank, a merchant she knew by sight hand in hand with a gallus from the Fleet Fox. People stomped their feet in time to the beat. A boy bearing dainties joined her and Agrippa in their box. He too was naked, his skin silver and decorated with blue scales. Cynara smiled at him and—insatiably curious—reached out and stroked his upper arm. Agrippa looked on, amused.
‘Those are attached,’ he said. ‘The scientists have them manifest as they mature, and fade as they age.’
The boy submitted to her touch, sidling up to her and offering her his throat, which was delicately marked with the blue scales; they were like glistening sequins. Cynara noticed they felt cool and metallic under her fingers, but also smooth and fine. Agrippa reached around her and ran the back of his hand over the skin beneath the boy’s ear.
‘You’re very lovely,’ he said.
‘You both like me, I see,’ the boy said. ‘I am available for your pleasure afterwards, should you wish it.’
‘Poor Jerusalem,’ he said into her ear, ‘so determined that no one’s allowed to have any fun. No fighting, no fucking, no dancing, no festivals.
Cynara withdrew her hand as though she’d touched a hot stovetop. Her friends in Rome had told her this, that the attendants in the glassed-in observation boxes of the rich were on offer. She’d believed them—nothing in the Caput Mundi surprised her—but to see it first hand still came as a shock.
‘That won’t be necessary,’ Agrippa told him gently. ‘There will still be a generous tip, of course.’
The boy smiled and took his leave, while the two girls appeared with more food; one cut sausage on the table behind their seats and prepared a bowl of fruit, placing it before them.
‘Where do those beautiful children come from?’ Cynara wanted to know. They looked younger and darker than the attendants she’d seen in Rome.
‘Oh, Persia,’ he said airily. ‘Slavery is still legal there.’
Once again, the baldness of it shocked her.
She looked at the three of them, noticing the girls’ small round breasts and slim hips and the boy’s shoulders. They were broadening, but still adolescent. She guessed that all three were younger than sixteen, but by how far was difficult to spot. Agrippa speared a piece of melon with his little fork and popped it into Cynara’s mouth.
‘Come, graze,’ he said, his tongue touching her ear. ‘I’d like to watch you eat, with those pretty blue lips.’
Cynara chuckled and ordered wine, leaning into him. He kissed her, smoothing back her hair and touching the back of her neck, just below the hairline. She felt a little thrill of pleasure course through her.
You are a very bad man, Severus Agrippa, but you are so much fun.
A man in a billowing grey robe and a black cape picked out with silver stars strode into the fighting square. He carried a heavy staff surmounted with an eagle in one hand and grasped his robes in the other. He stopped under the suspended cage and swept the cape out and around him so it shimmered and shone. He thumped his staff against the ground three times, cutting through the hubbub. He held his arms out and circled slowly.
‘Listen all! Listen all! Listen all! Here’s the final test, the truth of it, the great mark. Since the days of Homer’s heroes, men have reserved the greatest feats and greatest fear for single combat. It’s not every day that we bring out the challenger and the challenged, and certainly, in the fine and moral city of Jerusalem, it’s not something we can do too often. And yet, just as Nestor contended with the giant Ereuthalion so, too, do the people of Judaea have a great story of challenge and single combat—’
Cynara knew what was coming and repressed a strong, instinctive desire to run down the aisle, leap onto the stage and force-feed the barker his staff.
If this involves a sling, I’m not going to be responsible for my actions.
‘—Here, they speak of David and Goliath, where the battle was won by the mighty Jewish champion, Goliath—’
At that moment Cynara collapsed into gales of laughter. She could see Agrippa was pleased she was laughing so hard, but that he had no idea why.
‘The giant just flattened the shepherd boy.’
He still didn’t get it.
‘Think of it as historical revisionism.’
‘Of course. David’s the Jewish one.’
He joined her, now, and the three children assigned to wait on them watched as they both shuddered with mirth.
‘I shouldn’t be laughing,’ she said. Agrippa dabbed at his cheek with a silk handkerchief, shaking his head at her. His screen make-up had run.
‘I should have cleaned this off,’ he said.
The barker thumped the floor with his staff again, announcing the fighters. Cynara saw that the mistake went all the way down: ‘David’ was a big man, heavily muscled and brawny, ‘Goliath’ was notably leaner, but with a muscular efficiency about him. She doubted he was any younger than his opponent. Both were empty handed, a concession to local sensibilities: there would be no fights to the death in the Holy City. They were oiled and naked, glistening under the banks of lights. They would fight, she knew, using the techniques of the pankration, which while unarmed was still conducted with extraordinary violence. Only biting was forbidden.
Goliath delivered a vicious low kick to David’s thigh, holding the truncheon in front of his face, his chest rising and falling as he gasped for air.
‘I present to you, then, two men with a gutful of ferocity and fear,’ the barker was saying now, ‘two men, to the death!’
Cynara sat up, shocked as the crowd roared its approval. The cage began to descend slowly around the two fighters as the barker retreated into the gloom, beating his staff against the ground. It was then that she saw that weapons—a metal pole with a vicious curved blade on the end, a pair of wooden truncheons, what looked like an oversized fork—were suspended from various bits of the cage. All were pinned high up, in difficult to reach spots. It was ingenious and nasty.
‘That’s illegal here,’ she said. Agrippa touched the sensitive spot on her neck again; she felt her back begin to arch in response.
‘Poor Jerusalem,’ he said into her ear, ‘so determined that no one’s allowed to have any fun. No fighting, no fucking, no dancing, no festivals. I sometimes think the powers that be in this town would be happier if we reproduced by parthenogenesis.’
Cynara didn’t want to watch someone die. She’d been to the cages in Rome and was disturbed to find the killing didn’t repel her as she thought it might. For the first couple of times, she’d gone with friends and felt like the fifth wheel as they giggled and bonded and enjoyed each other’s company. When she went again, it had been with Leon, her lover. To her dismay, not only had she found the experience enjoyable, she’d had passionate, animal sex with him afterwards. Watching now with Agrippa, she felt the same process starting again.
One of the fish-scale children closed the door to their box, cutting the noise considerably. She approached Agrippa.
‘Don Agrippa, there is a call for you from your wife. Will you take it at your table?’
Cynara watched as he frowned and scratched his ear. She felt a momentary pang of guilt, blushed and then sighed.
A Roman high school, a Roman academy, a Roman employer and mostly Roman friends. And I’m still a Jewish square.
‘Put her through, yes.’
He was still frowning as the bell chimed and he leaned forward to take the call. Cynara focused on the silver finish on the handset. It was shaped like a trumpet; he rolled it in his fingers beside his ear as he spoke.
He shifted in his seat and kissed his teeth.
‘Was it rape?’
‘What’s the problem, then? If she wants it, let him give it to her.’
‘I know that, but—what is it—he’s fifteen now, isn’t he?’
Cynara realised soon enough that the boy referred to in their conversation was his son. She tried to remember a profile of him she’d read somewhere. She seemed to recall three children, but wasn’t sure if all were by his wife or one by the voluptuous actress who was his concubine.
‘Take him and get him chipped, yes, that’s a good idea,’ he was saying, ‘and get her an abortion if she needs one. And tell him to keep his bloody head down. Only in our house, and only at festival time.’
He chatted compatibly into the device for a while. Cynara startled when he ended the call and looked at her, his expressive face earnest.
‘It seems my endlessly randy son is at it again,’ he said. ‘We stopped him last time, because he’d only just turned thirteen, but he’s fifteen now. I think he can handle it.’
Curiosity won out over good taste. ‘But what about your law?’
‘Some parents are stricter than others on the “sixteen rule”,’ he said, ‘depending on the position their families and ancestors took on slavery. Many parents would give their son a slave woman to practise on. It stopped him pestering citizen women and made him a better lover when the time came to start courting.’
It was clear from his expression he liked this particular tradition.
‘Goliath’—the lean one—was nimble at clambering around the inside of the cage, securing one of the wooden truncheons. He belted ‘David’ with it a couple of times, but the bigger man used his weight and height to step inside the smaller man and deflect him into the base of the metal bars. ‘Goliath’ sprang up immediately, his weapon still in hand. Fighters of all stripes stuck themselves full of drugs and were bloody hard to kill. The dosages were sold in metered phials, but there was nothing to stop enterprising individuals from buying at several apothecaries one after the other and self-medicating.
They also often came from among the poor, although there were certain better-off types who found the risk addictive and thrilling. She’d even known one of her fellow students—he’d failed his finals—go to a well-known lanista as a sort of protracted suicide note. She’d been appalled at the thought of seeing him die in the cage, but his erstwhile friends insisted on watching him whenever he was listed to fight. Leon told her he had dishonoured himself by failing his exams and then compounded the dishonour by going to the lanista. His death, however—if done properly—would reclaim that lost honour. She did not grasp this until the day she saw him die, exposing his neck to an opponent’s pole-with-a-blade without flinching away. She saw her friends cheering the manner of his death, saw the crowd come to its feet in the smoke-filled pit on the Aventine as his body was borne away.
The fight must have been going for nearly half an hour by this point; both men had had chances to land a killing blow, but were too exhausted to strike with effect.
Evil is live backwards, she thought after that.
She noticed they made no attempt to grab each other: their oiled skin kept them upright, stopping the bout from turning into an ugly grapple on the floor. Goliath delivered a vicious low kick to David’s thigh, holding the truncheon in front of his face, his chest rising and falling as he gasped for air. The kick seemed to galvanise the latter, and he made a despairing leap for the bladed pole, pulling it down from above into his hands and circling it around his head. The polished steel gleamed in the light. Now they both had weapons the fight was more even, and the bigger man used his reach to slash at Goliath, scoring his shoulders and back. In time they faced each other like two bleeding statues, their movements blurred and imprecise from fatigue. The fight must have been going for nearly half an hour by this point; both men had had chances to land a killing blow, but were too exhausted to strike with effect. Her head was ringing from the noise of the crowd. Lust mixed with disgust, and fascination mixed with fear. She looked at Agrippa, wanting him but also wanting to be ill. He was leaning back in his seat, munching contentedly. From time to time he leaned across and fed her something.
‘Surely they’ll stop it,’ she said. ‘They’ll both collapse from loss of blood.’
‘This is a rare treat in Jerusalem. The crowd will expect to deliver a verdict.’
David hacked with his blade at Goliath’s ankles. Both of them slipped around in the blood pooled on the floor, and Cynara half stood as Goliath pitched forward. His Achilles tendon had been cut. David stood over him, dripping, turning his weapon in his hands so that the blade pointed downwards. He swept the crowd with his gaze; the cage slowly lifted and the silver-cloaked barker emerged from the gloom. He banged his staff three times again, standing just clear of a pool of blood.
‘Is it time to die?’ he bellowed, turning and turning.
To her very great relief, the crowd spared him. She watched, hollow eyed, as attendants hosed down the blood and carried both men away on stretchers. Agrippa touched the back of her neck again, and she felt her resistance yield.
If you would like to read Book I or Book II of Kingdom of the wicked they can be purchased HERE or HERE respectively. Helen is also often causing a stir/ occasionally being funny on Twitter - you can follow her @_HelenDale