REVIEW BLITZ: THE LEFT HAND OF CALVUS
By Ann Gallagher
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Length: 52,500 words approx.
Former gladiator Saevius is certain Fortune’s smiling on him when a Pompeiian politician buys him to be his bodyguard. That is until his new master, Laurea Calvus, orders Saevius to discover the gladiator with whom his wife is having a sordid affair. In order to do that, Saevius must return to the arena, training alongside the very men on whom he’s spying. Worse, he’s now under the command of Drusus, a notoriously cruel—and yet strangely intriguing—lanista.
But Saevius’s ruse is the least of his worries. There’s more to the affair than a wife humiliating her prominent husband, and now Saevius is part of a dangerous game between dangerous men. He isn’t the only gladiator out to expose the Lady Verina’s transgressions, and her husband wants more than just the guilty man’s name.
When Saevius learns the truth about the affair, he’s left with no choice but to betray a master: one he’s come to fear, one he’s come to respect, and either of whom could have him killed without repercussion.
For the first time in his life, the most dangerous place for this gladiator isn’t the arena.
So this is Pompeii. The prosperous city at the base of Vesuvius.
I’ve heard the tales about this place. Quiet. Warm. Near the sea. Until recently, with the rudis of freedom so close I could almost feel its wooden hilt in my hands, I had considered coming here to make my home once I was no longer a slave. That is until Fortune decided I should remain in bondage. I’d had perhaps three fights left, but now I, along with two other men from my familia gladiatori, are on our way to the Pompeiian politician who’s now our master.
In spite of the fact that I’d lost my chance at freedom, the rest of the men in the familia had been envious.
“A nobleman? In Pompeii?” One had slapped my arm. “You lucky bastard!”
“Agreed,” another had said. “You won’t be in the arena anymore, and if you’ve got to stay a slave, Saevius, you could do worse than to live out your days as some rich bastard’s bodyguard.”
A third had added, “Pompeii? I hear in that place, the wine they pour in noblemen’s houses tastes like the lips of Venus herself.”
The other men traveling with me had been thrilled by that notion. Me, I’m as enthusiastic about any woman’s lips, including Venus’s, as I am about spending the rest of my days a fucking slave, so I’d simply muttered, “I’ll be sure to give my regards to Bacchus.”
What servant drinks the same wine as his masters, I can hardly imagine. But never mind, because the wine here is probably no different from what flows in Rome. After all, Pompeii doesn’t seem much different from Rome, if you ask me. A great deal smaller, yes, and much less crowded. At least in this part of the city, though, it’s all the same terracotta roofs and limestone walls and, as we near the market, people dragging unruly livestock down stone streets past lumbering carts and clouds of buzzing flies. Smells like bread, sweat, fish, and dung, just like Rome, with chickens talking over the shouting bakers, fishmongers, butchers, and vintners while hammering and banging come from workshops behind shop fronts and booths. Perhaps I should have considered retiring to Herculaneum instead. Then again, if Pompeii isn’t in life what it is in stories, then Herculaneum likely isn’t the luxurious place it’s said to be either.
Not that I have a choice now. Pompeii is my home until I’m sold or I die. Or my new master sees fit to free me when I’m no longer of use to him.
Ectur, the monolith of a Parthian tasked with bringing the three of us down from Rome, leads us deeper into Pompeii’s stinking, bustling market. With every exhausted step, our chains rattle over the city’s noise. Though the streets are crowded, people move aside to let us pass. Some give us wary looks, standing between us and their wives and children. Even those struggling to move carts down these difficult roads stay out of our way. They’re especially wary of Ectur. We certainly look the part of gladiators—scarred, tanned brutes, all of us—and since Ectur’s unchained, people probably think he’s our lanista. No citizen with any sense wants near a lanista.
The market must be close to the Forum. All over the place, noblemen strut like cocks and sneer at slaves and citizens, just like every one I ever saw in Rome, as though the gods themselves should fear them. Would’ve liked to have met one of them in the arena during my fighting days; he’d have wept to the gods for mercy, and that pristine white toga would have been stained in shit before I’d fully raised my sword.
But, gods willing, my days in the arena are behind me forever.
Just beyond the market, where the streets fan out toward clusters of high-walled villas, Ectur approaches a squat, balding man in a tunic that’s far too clean to belong to a common laborer. The man’s attention is buried in a beeswax tablet resting on his arm, and he’s muttering to himself as he scratches something into it with a stylus.
He glances up at us, and I realize he only has one eye. Dropping his attention back to the tablet, he grumbles, “Thought you’d leave me waiting all bloody day.”
“Longer journey from Rome than it is from your master’s house,” Ectur mutters.
Without looking up, the one-eyed man says, “I’ll need to look at them before you leave. The Master Laurea will be unhappy if they are not up to his standards.”
Ectur stands straighter, narrowing his eyes. “Caius Blasius doesn’t deal in faulty goods.”
“Then he’ll not mind if I inspect his goods to be sure.” The one-eyed man gestures at us with his stylus. “Whereas I have a beating waiting if I bring to my master slaves who are not to his liking. So he’ll—” He stops abruptly, his eye widening. “Where is the fourth? Master Laurea specifically selected four men, not three.”
“The fourth fell ill. Terrible fever, and the medicus can’t say if he’ll live.” Ectur pulls a scroll from his belt and hands it to the one-eyed man. “Caius Blasius gives his word your master will be compensated.”
Glancing back and forth from the scroll to Ectur, the man sighs heavily. “The master will not be happy. It was the fourth in particular who interested him.”
Ectur sniffs with amusement. “That scrawny Phoenician is hardly worth the sestertii your master paid for him. An entertaining gladiator, maybe, but he’s worthless outside the arena.”
I can’t help a quiet laugh. It’s true enough; the idiot Phoenician is only alive—assuming he still is—because he’s less afraid of his opponents than he is of the punishment for being a coward on the sands. A man bred to be a bodyguard, he is not.
“The master selected his men for a reason,” the one-eyed man snaps at Ectur. He sighs and shakes his head. “Never mind, then. If he isn’t here, he isn’t here. The other three had best be in good condition.”
Ectur doesn’t respond. He folds his arms across his chest, watching with a scowl as the man with the stylus inspects us each in turn, tutting and muttering to himself in between jabbing us with his finger and etching something into the tablet. He pokes at scars and bruises, eyeing us when we flinch, and then checks our teeth and eyes. Since I was a child, I’ve been through more of these inspections than I can count, and still I have to force myself not to put both hands around his throat and show him I’m as fit and strong as a gladiator—or bodyguard, in this case—ought to be.
Finally, he grunts and slams shut the leather cover on the wax tablet. “They’re all well.”
“Good,” says the Parthian. “Give my regards to your master.”
“And yours.” The one-eyed man gestures sharply at us. “Come with me.”
Without a word from any of us, we follow the man. His legs are shorter than ours nearly by half, but he walks quickly, his gait fast and angry, and with heavy chains on our ankles, it’s a struggle to keep up with him. Ectur doesn’t come with us.
Soon, we will meet our new master.
By name, Junius Calvus Laurea isn’t unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard Caius Blasius mention him—usually with a scowl—and he’s apparently bought gladiators from my former master before. I don’t know his face, though, and I know nothing of the man whose life I will be sworn to guard. Only that he isn’t a lanista and my existence no longer includes the inside of an arena. Freedom may not be in my future, but Fortune be praised a thousand times over anyway.
The one-eyed servant leads us down a narrow road between the enormous villas lined up in ranks just inside the wall along the northern edge of the city. In spite of our chains, my fellow former gladiators and I exchange smiles. A villa instead of a ludus gladiatori? Indeed, this will be a new life. The existence of a bodyguard isn’t safe per se, but unless our master has an unusual number of enemies, we’ll protect him with our presence more often than our fighting skills. We’ll more likely die from boredom than a blade.
On our way out of Rome, we’d passed through the shadow of the nearly completed Colosseum. As the immense structure’s cool shade rested on my neck and shoulders, I’d whispered a prayer of thanks, in spite of the chains on my wrists and ankles, for my good fortune. Rumors abound about what’s planned for the Colosseum, and some say the games there will be far greater and more brutal than all the Ludi we’d barely survived at Circus Maximus. Another year or two, people say, and it will be complete. Perhaps I’ll never earn my rudis and the freedom that accompanies it now, but any gladiator should be grateful for the chance to serve a nobleman rather than set foot in that place.
We stop in front of one of the countless villas. There, two massive, heavily-armed guards push open the tall gates, and we walk inside. Our one-eyed guide takes us through the luxurious home to the garden in the back. Here, within the high walls covered in trailing ivy and in the shade of a massive cypress tree, servants and statues surround our new master.
As soon as I see him, I recognize the Master Laurea. I’ve seen him at the ludus before, watching us train and inspecting us the way his servant did today. I didn’t know at the time he was the one called Calvus Laurea, but I never forgot that face. Carved from cold stone, sharply angled, with intense blue eyes that always emphasize the smirk or scowl on his lips.
He lounges across a couch, cradling a polished cup in his hand as a servant fans away the day’s heat with enormous feathers. A large bodyguard stands behind Calvus Laurea, as does a black-eyed servant with a wine jug clutched to her chest.
The man who led us here stops us with a sharp gesture, and all three of us go to our knees, heads bowed.
The master gets up. His sandals scuff on the stone ground. “Stand, all of you.” As one, we rise to attention.
“I am Junius Cal—” His brow furrows. He looks from one of us to the next. Narrowing his eyes, he turns to the man who brought us. “There are three, Ataiun. Where is the fourth?”
The one-eyed servant bows his head. “My apologies, Dominus. There were only three. The fourth was stricken with fever and unable to travel.” He pulls out the scroll Ectur had given him. “His master sends this promise of compensation.”
Master Laurea scowls. “Very well. I suppose it will have to do.” He waves a hand at his servant. “See that it’s accounted for.” To us, he says, “I am Junius Calvus Laurea, and I am your new master.”
Once again, he looks at us each in turn. I try not to notice how his gaze keeps lingering on me longer than it does on the others, but his pauses are too conspicuous to ignore.
At last, he speaks: “You’re the one called Saevius, yes?”
I square my shoulders. “I am, Dominus.”
Without taking his eyes off me, he says to his servant, “Show the others to their quarters.” He gestures at me. “This one stays here.”
The men who accompanied me bow their heads sharply, and a moment later, they are gone.
Master Laurea steps closer to me, still looking me squarely in the eyes. “Welcome to Pompeii, Saevius,” he says with a slight smile. “You may call me Calvus.”
His request for familiarity sends ghostly spiders creeping up the length of my spine.
Without taking his eyes off mine, he snaps his fingers. “Bring us wine. Both of us.”
The servant holding the wine jug obeys immediately, and the spiders are more pronounced now, my breath barely moving as the woman pours two cups of wine. She hands one to our master, and then the other to me.
“Leave us,” Calvus says. “All of you.”
Gods, be with me . . .
In moments, I am alone with my new master, a cup of wine in my uncertain hand. Calvus brings his cup to his lips, pausing to say, “Drink, Saevius. I insist.”
I do. I can’t say if it tastes like the cunt of Venus, but it’s as sweet and rich as Pompeiian wines are said to be, if slightly soured by the churning in the pit of my stomach.
“You won’t be my bodyguard, Saevius,” Calvus says suddenly. “Not like the two who came with you.”
I suddenly can’t taste the wine on my tongue. With much effort, I swallow it. “Whatever you ask of me, Dominus.”
“I have two tasks for you, Saevius.” Something about the way he says my name, the way he keeps saying my name, sends more spiders wandering up and down my back and beneath my flesh. “One simple, one less so.”
I bow my head slightly. “I am here to serve, Dominus.”
“Calvus,” he says. “Call me Calvus.”
I slowly raise my head. “I am here to serve . . . Calvus.”
He grins. “Much better.”
He’s playing a game here. He has to be. What game it is, and what role I play, I can’t work out.
I take another drink of tasteless wine. “What are my duties?”
“There is a ludus gladiatori on the south side of the city.” The mention of a ludus twists something in my chest. Calvus continues, “Your first task is to present a gift to the lanista of that ludus. A gift of five hundred sestertii from Cassius, the city magistrate.” My skin crawls as an odd smile curls the corners of my new master’s mouth. “Cassius deeply regrets he could not present it himself, but”—the smile intensifies—“I promised I would take care of it for him.”
In spite of Calvus’s expression, relief cools my blood. Delivering monetary gifts instead of fighting other gladiators for the entertainment of a roaring crowd? Even if it means setting foot in a ludus again, I’ll be there only as a messenger, not a fighter in training.
Gods, I thank you. Again and again, I thank you.
“Let’s discuss your second task.” He tilts his head just so, like he’s looking for answers to questions he hasn’t yet asked. “Blasius spoke highly of you, Saevius. And your reputation precedes you all the way from Rome.” He raises his cup. “A tremendous fighter, but also a loyal servant.”
He’s quiet for a moment. It’s a silence I’m certain I’m supposed to fill, but I don’t know how.
“Thank you, Dominus,” is all I can think to say, and quickly correct it with, “Calvus. Thank you, Calvus.”
He lowers his wine cup. A different smile forms on his mouth, one that’s taut and unnerving. I’m less and less comfortable as the silence between us lingers.
At last, he speaks, and there’s something in his voice this time, an edge that prickles the back of my neck. “After you’ve delivered the money to the lanista, you will remain at the ludus.” His eyes narrow as one corner of his mouth lifts. “As an auctoratus.”
My heart beats faster. “Dominus, with respect, an auctoratus? I am not a citizen. I’m not even a freedman. How can I be an auctoratus if I am still—”
Calvus puts up a hand. “You will remain my slave, of course, but until such time as I tell you otherwise, you will live at the ludus. Train as a gladiator.” He inclines his head and lowers his voice. “To everyone but us and the gods, and according to the documents that will accompany you, you are a citizen voluntarily submitting to be owned by the ludus and its lanista. Am I understood?”
No. No, what are you asking me to do? And why?
But I nod anyway. “Yes, Dominus.”
He moves now, walking toward, then around me, circling me slowly as he continues speaking. “While you train and fight, you will keep your eyes and ears open. Listen and watch the men around you.”
I sweep my tongue across my dry lips. Every familia gladiatori is already rife with dangerous rivalries. To spy on my brothers within the ludus? Especially when I am the newest blood? I should cut my own throat now and be done with it.
“As an auctoratus,” he says, still walking around me, “you will be able to leave the ludus of your own free will, so long as you return and you don’t leave the city. When I wish to speak to you, I will contact you. Understood?”
“I . . . yes,” I say. “What am I looking for, Dominus? Er, Calvus?”
“You’re a gladiator, Saevius,” he says. “Surely you know how women feel about men like you?”
I nod again. Women were no strangers to the ludus where I trained before. Many of them married, plenty of them noble; my lanista took their money, the women cavorted with gladiators, and the husbands were never the wiser.
“A man of my stature cannot afford the embarrassment of a wife’s . . .” He pauses in both speech and step, wrinkling his nose. “Of a wife’s unsavory indiscretions. Especially with creatures so far below my station.” Calvus resumes his slow, unsettling walk around me. “And when word begins to spread of a woman doing these things, a husband, particularly a husband of my political and social stature, has little choice but to put a stop to it.” He steps into my sight and halts, looking me in the eye. “Which is where you come in, Saevius.”
Oh, dear sweet gods, help me . . .
“You will listen, and you will watch.” Calvus comes closer, eyes narrowing. “Learn the name of the man who keeps drawing my lady Verina into his bed. Am I clear, gladiator?”
In all my years in the arena, my heart has never pounded this hard. What woman doesn’t have slaves as lovers? Gladiators fuck married women as often as we fight amongst ourselves.
Unless Calvus thinks his wife isn’t involved with a slave. One of the freedmen working as trainers? Perhaps the lanista himself? Or one of the munerators renting fighters for some upcoming games? No citizen, especially not a public figure such as Calvus, tolerates that kind of insult from his wife, and for some, divorce isn’t nearly punishment enough.
Regardless of Calvus’s reasoning or what he plans to do once he knows the name of his wife’s lover, is there any place more dangerous for a man than the middle of games played between a wife and the husband she’s scorned?
“Am I clear, gladiator?”
I swallow hard. “Yes, Calvus.”
“Good.” He steps away and lifts his wine again. “I will have your papers drawn up tonight. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken to the ludus owned by the lanista Drusus.”
Drusus. Gods, any lanista but him. I silently beg the ground to open up beneath me. Drusus’s reputation extends beyond any reach Master Calvus could dream of his own doing. No gladiator who’s heard the stories about Drusus would ever volunteer to fight for him.
Calvus looks me up and down, his brow furrowing as he inspects my arms, one then the other. “These scars are . . .” He meets my eyes. “You’re left-handed, aren’t you?”
He grins. “Excellent. I’m sure Drusus will be doubly pleased with you.” The grin widens. “Perhaps I should have chosen you in the first place over that Phoenician. After all, a left-handed fighter like you belongs in the arena where he can make his lanista rich, yes?”
I resist the urge to avoid his eyes.
“You’ll be his left-handed moneymaker, and you’ll—” Calvus gives a quiet, bone-chilling laugh. “Well, I suppose in a way you’ll be my left hand, won’t you?”
“I suppose I will, Dominus,” I whisper.
Calvus puts his hand on my shoulder. The amusement leaves his expression. “Listen closely, gladiator. This is very important. The money you’re giving Drusus, the five hundred sestertii, is from the magistrate called Cassius. The same one who will be providing your auctoratus documents. Is that clear?”
My mouth goes dry as I nod.
“You will not mention me or our arrangement,” he says. “Not to anyone within the ludus under any circumstances. Understood?”
“Yes, Dominus.” I hesitate. “Calvus.”
“Be warned, Saevius. I do not tolerate treachery or dishonesty.” He leans in, lowering his voice so I’m certain no one but me and the gods can hear him, and he presses down hard on my shoulder. “Give me a single reason to believe you’re not doing precisely as I’ve ordered, or that you’ve breathed my name within the walls of the ludus, and I will see to it the magistrate asks Drusus if he received the full seven hundred sestertii. Am I understood?”
With much effort, I swallow. With even more, I nod. “Yes, Calvus.”
And silently, I beg the gods to send me back to Rome to fight in its Colosseum.
Regardless of the pen name this author uses, I can rest assured that I’m going to be drawn into a thoroughly and masterfully plotted story with expertly crafted characters, and rewarded with an intensely researched, descriptively written, and steadily paced writing style.
The Left Hand of Calvus was set in pre-Vesuvius days of Pompeii and focuses in on the life of Saevius, a gladiator assigned by his new master, a powerful politician, to go undercover in a luda overseen by the feared larista Drusus. His job? To find out who his wife Lady Verina is sleeping with and defaming his name.
But things are not as they seem, and Saevius finds himself in various bouts of danger. To confound his nervousness at being discovered, Saevius finds he’s inexplicably drawn to his new larista, Drusus.
I read the entire book in one day, and it definitely captured and kept my interest. The narrative is engrossing, and the fluid, steady storytelling offers the right balance of history, sensory description, masterful character development, intrigue and suspense, and a major dramatic surprise.
Romance, if that’s even the appropriate word, is depicted differently in this time period: the wives of wealthy noblemen arrange expensive clandestine servicing by victorious gladiators in back alley brothels, but Drusus and Saevius find themselves inexplicably attracted to one another. Nothing is what it seems on the surface, and violence, treachery, and death can rear their heads without warning.
The Left Hand of Calvus is a brilliantly written story. A must read.
I voluntarily read an Advanced Readers Copy for the Retro Review promotion and enthusiastically provided a written review.
Original review posted on Amazon on March 27, 2018.