ATALANUS

Prologue: Persona Non Grata

The smell brought back memories of the dead woman in the shrine. Orsini had swallowed those images, storing them deep within. He had never dared to regurgitate them up and see if they had changed. No, he thought as he walked amongst the twisted corpses. They have not changed. The horror still filled him with a bone-deep tremor, like the insects they had extracted from the innards of the woman's body.

"By the mercy of Aureliana," Lucer breathed beside him. The man pressed a sleeve to his mouth and nose, separating his delicate senses from the miasma of death that permeated the temple. He had never been on a battlefield, never stepped outside the gilded gates of Livia. When Ephania had waged her war on the plains of Myria, he had been safely tucked away at his estate.

Orsini envied him.

There were no potions or prayers that could erase a sight such as this once it had engraved itself on a mind. And yet this was not a battle. A general knew what they must face when commanding their legions. They were ready for mutilation and decay. Here, in the cocoon of the imperial palace, the only spilled blood came from paper cuts in sealing decrees.

And yet, in all the protection and fortification that surrounded Livia's golden house, Orsini's past had crept back in, trailing its gore.

Orsini took a breath, and regretted it. His lungs contracted in the acrid air.

"Do we have any witnesses?" he asked.

Lucer stared mutely down at what remained of the delegation from Lo-Parahl. His face was as pale as the marble tiles. He shook his head dumbly. Orsini was not sure if he was saying there were no witnesses, or if he was too shocked to comprehend him.

Orsini almost prayed there had been no witnesses. If there had been, he knew the implications. Someone had been complicit in the murder of six provincial representatives, who had been promised the highest protection of Aureliana herself.

Orsini forced himself to take the sight in as much detail as he could bear. In the holiest sanctuary of the high goddess, the six men and women had been arranged almost reverently. Evidently, this was no quick butchery job, designed to steal their goods and run. Each of them had been stripped and lain on their bare backs, arms spread, legs bent demurely. Their hands almost touched, reaching out for each other in the neat circle they had been placed in. The statue of Aureliana looked over this display of perverted devotion. Every representative's torso had been torn open from throat to navel, exposing the glistening, red cavities within. A different organ had been extracted from each. A heart, a lung, a stomach, a liver, a kidney, a pancreas were placed at their feet, forming another circle within this arc of mangled corpses. The blood was the ink of this foul canvas, surrounding heads with a scarlet halo, splashing up marble columns, ruining carven frescoes. Only Aureliana had been spared the indignity.

And the flowers... They were almost worst of all. In the gaping chests of the victims, rose petals had been scattered lovingly. How Orsini remembered those flowers, clutched to the breast of the dead woman in the shrine...

It was enough. Orsini looked away.

A group of his magistrates were lurking in the corner, huddling close as if the murderer were still nearby. Even the military guard looked distressed. They had failed him. They had failed the sanctity of Livia.

"I want to speak to all who were on duty last night," Orsini ordered, trying to retain the control that he did not feel. "Word will spread like wildfire of this. Rumours will emerge. I can not have the people think we are doing nothing about the deaths of six Lo-Parahlians. Certainly not in these days."

Lucer nodded. "Yes, Highness," he rasped.

Orsini turned away. Atalanus, he thought, and the dam was broken. He had sworn he would not utter that name again, not even in his mind.

Many others were trying to enter the temple, risking the wrath of the guards he had posted. He could not allow them to see him falter. He was father to thousands, crowded into this invulnerable capital. They would look to him to restore their faith, now Aureliana herself had been violated in her own house.

And yet, as he raised his eyes to the balcony overlooking the temple, he only saw one face. Nymias, the sole child of his blood, stood there. Her maidens and servants covered their faces, weeping, but she held their hands and watched without a single tear.

For a moment, he envied her too.


A/n: So this is a very very old story idea back from when I wrote fantasy a lot more. I have just begun a uni module on the Roman Empire and it brought back some of the love for my old stories, so I thought I would experiment with one of them while I had that inspiration.

Feedback always appreciated :)