Varia still hates Livia for killing her sister, Tura. But after several months, the pain has abated and she must cope with her new life. Almost half a year ago, the Bitch of Rome stormed her village and changed her life forever, killing her sister, enslaving the rest, but sparing Varia. She’d been ready to die, but Livia had a better punishment for her: to let her live, and serve in Livia’s army.
When Livia and her army had returned to Rome, Livia had shown off her captured Amazon warrior in her Triumph before having her trained to fight like a Roman in her infantry. Varia’s blood had boiled, and at night she’d fantasised about ripping the Bitch to shreds with her bare hands. Anger had kept her going when grief threatened to consume her.
Now, the hate is still there, but she has learnt to channel it into her fighting so that when she looks at her commander she no longer rages at the sight of those cold blue eyes. Sometimes she feels Livia’s eyes on her, and when she turns she glimpses a spark of interest in them. She tries to ignore it. She has given Livia enough satisfaction; she won’t give her more. But she will take her own.
She follows Livia into more wars until there is no more land for Rome to conquer. They have taken the world from north to south to west, although rumours circulate about eastern lands that Emperor Augustus has decreed are not to be touched.
Varia has worked her way through the ranks by now, although she knows it’s due to Livia keeping her enemy close, rather than Varia’s loyalty, which is lacking. Livia’s well aware that Varia will stab her in the back the moment opportunity strikes.
She’s just finished her evening meal when she receives the summons. Putting her bowl aside without complaint, she stands and marches to Livia’s tent. A tall, muscular man with dark hair and a beard passes her with a grin on his face. Ares, she thinks, gritting her teeth. While Livia works for Augustus, it’s Ares who encourages her to wage war wherever she goes, and Varia despises him for urging Livia to attack the Amazons. If he weren’t a god, she’d kill him before Livia.
Ares doesn’t see her, and he disappears into thin air.
Varia nods at the two men guarding the commander’s tent, and ducks to enter it. “You summoned me,” she says in way of greeting.
Livia walks up to her like a predator approaching her prey. “Prepare your men for a longer campaign,” she replies. “We march at dawn.”
Varia frowns. “Where are we going?”
“Sarmatia.” Livia rests a hand on her desk, where a map is spread out.
“Didn’t the Emperor forbid any campaigns that far east?” Varia asks before she can hold her tongue. Self-control has never been her strong point.
“He’ll change his mind when I return.” A wicked smile plays on Livia’s lips, one that makes Varia shiver.
“Are we equipped for such a long campaign?” Varia winces inwardly as the question slips out.
“Who are you to question me?” Livia shouts, slamming her hand down on the table. “You serve my army and you’ll obey my orders!”
Varia squares her shoulders and tenses her muscles. “I am Princess Varia of the Greek Amazons, and you lost any respect I might’ve had for you as a warrior the day you attacked my tribe and killed my sister.”
Livia’s eyes flash. “Your sister?” She ponders. “Oh, your sister, the foolish girl who put herself between you and my blade. She was asking for it.”
Varia seethes. “You murdered an innocent girl and sold dozens more into slavery.”
Livia tilts her head. “It’s what I do.”
“And you expect me to follow you and watch as you do the same again and again?” Varia itches for the sword she left in her tent, cursing herself for not bringing it with her.
“You’ve been following me for a whole year,” Livia points out. “Why?”
Varia steps into Livia’s personal space. “Because you gave me no choice.”
“Yes.” Livia smirks. “What else?”
“Because,” says Varia, “I must avenge my tribe.”
“Yes,” Livia repeats. “And how many have you killed for them since that day? How many lives have you taken in your sister’s name? How many more until you’ve sated your thirst for vengeance?”
“Just one. Commander,” Varia adds, and strides out of the tent while she’s still thinking straight. If she’s going to kill the Bitch of Rome, she’s going to do it when there aren’t any guards nearby who know she’s alone with Livia. Vengeance and death wishes are not the same thing.
They invade Sarmatia, conquering village after village, which boosts morale until they reach the first city. This battle is longer and trickier, with losses on Livia’s side, but after a few days, the city is theirs. The Romans cheer and indulge in what the city has to offer. Varia watches, nauseated.
The next city they march towards is fortified. Varia voices her concerns, but Livia ignores her and orders the attack, inspired by their previous victory. Livia should’ve listened.
The battle is fought and won – but by the Sarmatians. Livia’s army is defeated by the impenetrable walls and skilled archers. Varia watches her comrades fall like flies, and while she was never one of them – she has no true friends; she doesn’t fit in amongst thousands of Roman men – being surrounded by so much death breaks something in her.
She waits for Livia to sound the retreat, but she doesn’t, so, knowing the punishment for desertion is a thousand times worse than dying a warrior on the battlefield, Varia remains, organising her men into testudo formation to protect them from enemy fire. She peeks through the tiny gap between her shield and the next, listening to the arrows bouncing off everyone’s shields. She smells blood and sweat, the odours of battle, and hears cries of agony as more men die. They shouldn’t have come here.
When an angry Livia yells, “Fall back!” they shuffle backwards, not breaking formation until the Sarmatians cease their fire. Varia and her men look at the battlefield and crumble: they’re all that’s left.
When Varia limps into Livia’s tent to report, still bleeding from her wounds, she has to step over shards of crockery. Bracing herself, she speaks in a gentler tone than she’s ever used before with Livia. “Commander,” she says.
Livia turns to her with empty eyes. “Congratulations, Varia,” she says, her voice much calmer and much lower than Varia had expected.
“What for?” She matches Livia’s tone.
“You were right.”
“Yes,” says Varia. She doesn’t want to enrage the Bitch of Rome by telling her I told you so, so she leaves it at that.
Livia stares at a spot on her right, refusing to look at Varia. “I failed,” she says. “I’ve never lost before, and they defeated me.”
Varia doesn’t know how to answer.
“Ares lied to me.”
That doesn’t surprise Varia in the slightest.
“But you’ve always been honest with me, haven’t you?” Livia turns her head back to face Varia, and Varia sees a lost girl in those soulless blue eyes.
“I’ve never had reason not to,” she replies, for it’s true; she’s always been clear about her desires and intentions. Livia knows Varia’s feelings.
Livia picks up her sword, and Varia’s heart stops – she left her sword and shield in her tent when she took off her armour after the battle. But Livia flips the sword and offers Varia the hilt. “Do it,” she says.
Varia stands there, frozen.
“Take it,” insists Livia. “You’ve been waiting for this moment. Do it.”
Varia understands, but doesn’t comply. A defeated Roman general must take his own life to avoid dishonour, and Livia seeks an alternative to suicide, she wants a glorious death in which her enemy strikes the blow. The better punishment is to let her live. Varia doesn’t take the sword.
When Livia realises Varia won’t do it, she stares at the tip of her blade and drops it. She looks like she’s trying to laugh but can’t. “I get it now,” she says. “Well done.”
Varia just nods, unable to gloat at her victory over the woman who ruined her life. When the silence stretches on too long, she points at Livia’s bare calf, visible because she’s wearing her shorter red leggings. “That old scar’s a bad one,” Varia observes. “Take a look at this.” She doesn’t know why, but she rolls up her sleeve to show Livia the scar on her shoulder. Diversion, perhaps.
“Wow.” A slight hint of interest glimmers in Livia’s eyes, giving her life again.
“Roman short sword,” explains Varia. “The man who did it – died before he had time to wipe his blade.”
Livia gives her a minute smile before turning around and lifting her shirt to reveal a pink scar just above her hipbone. “Gaelic spear. The man who did it – his entire regiment, his village, and two neighbouring villages destroyed before the sun went down.”
Varia swallows and wonders why she thought comparing scars with the Bitch of Rome was a good idea.
Livia finally comments on the blood smeared across Varia’s face and arm. “You’re injured,” she states, and her tone suggests it’s out of interest rather than concern.
Varia raises her eyebrows. “You catch on fast,” she says.
“Just a few nicks.”
Livia nods. “What about your men?”
“No,” Varia agrees.
“I can’t return to Rome after this,” says Livia.
Varia crosses her arms. “I suppose not.”
“I want you to lead the survivors back to Rome.”
“No?” Livia frowns, and it’s deadly.
“As of now, I don’t take orders from you. I don’t command your men, and I don’t fight for you,” says Varia, returning the glower. “I’m an Amazon, and I’m going home.”
“But I destroyed your village,” Livia points out.
Varia shakes her head. “There’re other Amazon tribes, Livia, and when I tell them what you did, they’ll come for you. You can run, but they’ll find you. I already alerted the local Sarmatian tribe to the Bitch of Rome’s whereabouts.”
“Very clever,” says Livia. “I wondered when you’d seize your chance. How does it feel? Is revenge as sweet as they say?”
Varia smiles. “Do you even need to ask?”
Livia returns the evil grin. “It’s a shame you’re not Roman. You would make a great right-hand woman.”
Varia shakes her head and says, “I thank the Fates I’m not. Someday I’ll be Queen of the Amazons. And by then you’ll be long forgotten.”
Livia puts her hand on Varia’s hip. “No, I won’t,” she says, and rubs Varia’s thigh.
Varia closes her eyes as she moistens, letting herself forget for a moment everything that’s on Livia’s hands. Varia shoves Livia against the table and pushes a knee between her legs before Livia slips a hand under Varia’s tunic and rubs her through her underthings. Livia isn’t gentle, she’s animalistic and, eyes open as they thrust against each other, Varia watches with relish as Livia fights to maintain her composure. Varia bucks against Livia’s finger on her clit and releases an involuntary moan. Her walls clench around nothing as the heat grows in her core.
She laughs when she comes, then removes her knee from between Livia’s thighs. She may’ve lost control for a moment, but it’s worth it to get Livia all hot and bothered and then deny her climax. Varia grins and straightens her tunic.
“Goodbye, Livia,” she says.
In a pathetic attempt at dignity, Livia holds her head up high. “You won’t forget me,” she says. “I just ensured it.”
“Perhaps.” Varia thumps her chest. It’s a final mocking show of respect for the woman who’s her commander no more. “The pleasure was all mine,” she adds with a little bow, and takes her leave of Livia, the Bitch of Rome.
Oh, yes, she thinks, revenge is sweet indeed.