By Therese Gilardi
Luminous days had come to Rome. The reach of the Empire was expanding, and the conquest of Britain was well under way. A Colosseum was rising, where there would be gladiator fights and mock sea battles. The sole problem was Vespasian. He walked with one foot in the land of the living and the other in the shadow of the gods. It was a matter of time before his dangerously ambitious son, Titus, would assume control. Which meant only one thing for Valerio. Trouble was coming.
Although Valerio didn’t know Titus personally, he feared the ruthless man would attempt to wrest control from the city’s wealthy merchants. He needed to cement his place in Roman society before Titus became Emperor. That would, Valerio was certain, allow him to retain his position once the change came.
One summer afternoon Valerio sat in the courtyard of his sister’s ocher palazzo, on the edge of the Palatine Hill. Juno had just given birth to her second child, his first niece. The baby lay in a straw basket, the sun licking her tiny feet.
“I’m afraid for you.” Juno patted Valerio’s arm.
“Not to worry. I’m expanding, into imports. I’ve already commissioned a ship. I’ll be so powerful Titus won’t dare touch me.”
Juno shook her head. “That’s not the trouble. Titus will soon go on the hunt. For another woman.”
Valerio sighed. Once again childbirth had clearly driven his sister quite mad.
“Juno,” he said softly, “Titus has Berenice.”
“For now. But when Vespasian dies, he’ll need someone more suitable to sit on the throne with him. Marcus has seen him, walking the hill. Pausing in front of the villa of Lucilla’s father.”
Valerio felt like he had when he’d fallen from his father’s fishing boat as a boy. As if water was filling his lungs. He struggled to breathe. He should never have waited so long to ask for Lucilla’s hand. He’d been afraid. Frightened her father would find him unworthy. Although he must hurry, there was still time. As long as Vespasian was alive. Valerio kissed Juno and the new baby good-bye then crossed Rome, to the ship maker’s warehouse.
A crew of workers were assembling the Perpetua. The ship’s sides were long and sturdy, her sails ready to unfurl. The chief shipbuilder, Lorenzo, hurried to the front of the workshop the instant he saw Valerio.
“Splendid, isn’t she? As you wanted, I spared no expense.”
Valerio shook his head.
“I followed your directions. The plans we agreed upon. How can you be displeased?”
“My needs have changed. The Perpetua must be bigger. I want the largest merchant ship in the Roman Empire.”
Lorenzo eyed the Perpetua. “It’s possible. With modifications.”
“I need it by next month.”
“If you can’t do it, I’ll find another builder.”
“I’ll have her ready to drop in the water in thirty days. The Perpetua will be the biggest ship Rome has ever seen. Where will she sail? Africa?”
“Naples. I am going to stock all the goods from the artisans’ workshops in Pompeii and bring them here, to Rome.” Valerio was convinced his fellow Romans would be especially keen on the work of a young marble artist who had his studio deep in the warrens of Pompeii.
Lorenzo smiled. “No more need to journey to the foot of Mount Vesuvius for the treasures of Pompeii.”
“So you approve.”
“You, Valerio, are brilliant.”
Valerio hoped Lucilla and her father would agree. Although he longed to tell them about the Perpetua, he knew it best to surprise them with an invitation to the maiden launch. Until then he would have his sunset walks with Lucilla along the Palatine Hill.
She was waiting for him near the gate of her father’s villa, her face tilted to the sky. The summer breeze ruffled her cream linen tunic. Valerio would drape a different silk stola across her narrows shoulders every day of the week once they were married. He would have them made from the fabrics the Perpetua brought back from the artisans’ workshops in Pompeii.
They set off on their promenade, Lucilla’s chaperone following at a respectable distance. They walked in silence, inhaling the scent from the lemon trees and grasses that lined the path. When they arrived in front of Nero’s golden house Valerio stopped to admire the marble bust of a swan in the front garden.
“It’s to your liking?” Lucilla asked.
“Such artistry. Look at the cut of the chin. And the eyes. So real.”
“Beautiful,” Lucilla agreed.
One of the many rabbits on the hill scampered past. Lucilla was like the rabbit, quiet, slender and, if Valerio wasn’t careful, soon to disappear. He would press Lorenzo tomorrow. Have the timeline on the Perpetua moved up, so he could square things with her father.
“I can never quite shake the past up here on Palatine Hill,” Lucilla said as they continued their walk. “The fire. Raining smoke from the sky. Suffocating everyone, embalming them with ash. The most terrible way to die.” She shivered.
“I would never let that happen to you.”
Lucilla’s cheeks turned the deep rose of an autumn sunset. “I must go.”
Valerio knew he had gone too far. But he knew that an apology for his forwardness would only make the situation more uncomfortable.
They didn’t speak until they reached her father’s villa. As her father’s maid stepped forward to open the gate, Lucilla said, “I’m going away. I look forward to seeing you upon my return.”
Valerio was relieved. He still had a chance.
He spent the next few weeks overseeing the boat’s construction. The Perpetua exceeded expectations. With its elegant cabin crew quarters, rows and rows and rows of shelving and large cargo holds, it would be able to carry all the goods Valerio could afford to transport from Pompeii.
Eight nights before the Perpetua’s completion, Vespasian died. Titus was immediately named his successor. The climate under Titus seemed much more positive than Valerio had anticipated. Titus was wrapped up in his own affairs, totally disinterested in the merchant class. Still, there was no reason to draw attention to himself. Valerio cancelled his massive launch party. Only Lorenzo and a handful of ship makers were present as the Perpetua was eased into the water, bound for the Bay of Naples. After the ship set sail, Valerio busied himself preparing his warehouses to receive the treasures that would be returning from Pompeii on the Perpetua. Most evenings he walked past Lucilla’s father’s villa. She had yet to return.
Juno was the first to hear the rumblings about the cloud of smoke hanging over Pompeii. She mentioned it one evening when Valerio stopped by for tea. At first he was incredulous. Bad weather in Pompeii? In the summer? Impossible. He was certain Juno were wrong. Until Marcus arrived.
He patted his sleeping daughter, then dropped into a chair. “The cloud of smoke has been followed by a rain of lava. Mount Vesuvius has blown. Pompeii is gone.”
Valerio shook his head. “Pompeii? Gone?”
Marcus nodded. “Nothing is left. The entire city has been wiped from the map. The people are frozen in place. Entombed in ash.”
For some reason this reminded Valerio of Lucilla and her fear. He rushed back to her father’s villa, hoping she had somehow returned, but the house had been shuttered for the night. He returned, early, the next morning. As he approached he heard weeping in the garden. His chest tightened when he saw her father’s maid.
“My lady is in?”
“Oh sir,” she wiped her eyes, “She’s gone. To Pompeii.”
Valerio ran to Lorenzo. The old shipbuilder would have a boat he could commandeer, as well as a captain. As soon as arrangements were made, Lorenzo said, “I’m sorry, Valerio. I should have told you about Titus.”
“What about Titus?”
“I thought that’s why you wished to go south. Because of the Perpetua.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“When Titus heard about the Perpetua being the biggest ship in the Empire, and your plans to bring in goods from Pompeii … the word is he had her sunk. In the Bay of Naples. Although who knows. So many false statements are circulating. Still I’ve heard more than one report that the Perpetua was purposely rammed by another ship right after she left port. Laden down with all of the goods from the artisan workshops, the massive crew and of course the size of the ship herself. They’re saying the Perpetua hit the floor of the bay with such force she triggered the earthquake that led to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps it is just be a rumor.”
It was almost impossible to comprehend. Unless Valerio’s instincts about Titus had been right. But it didn’t matter. The only thing of importance was finding Lucilla. “I need the boat.”
Valerio didn’t sleep during the sailing to Naples. He spent the voyage on deck, keeping watch on the horizon. Willing himself to see something other than the scarred volcano. But it was no use. Even before the ship pulled into the harbor the land beyond looked as if the gods had taken a match and set the world aflame.
The moment the ship docked Valerio was off, in search of Lucilla. For three days Valerio braved the horrors of what was left of Pompeii. He willed himself not to look into the stunned faces of the men, women, children and animals, or the shards of society splintered everywhere. He wandered up and down the coast, hoping Lucilla had made it to Herculaneum. Because of the winds and its position along the coast, many of its people had survived the eruption. He had a moment of hope when an old woman claimed to have seen someone matching Lucilla’s description, although she could not remember when or where. The woman gave him her silk stola for good luck.
On the fourth day of his search Valerio saw a slim figure, her arms wrapped around a small marble statue, on the beach. She was coated in ash, looking out to sea. His legs shook. Before he reached her, Valerio knew.
He tried to revive Lucilla, but the life had left her body long ago. Gently he laid her down and looked at the marble in her arms. It was a miniature of the statue of the swan he had admired in Nero’s golden house.
Valerio knew Lucilla would never want to be entombed in ash. Gently Valerio gathered up Lucilla’s body and walked into the bay. When the water came up past his knees, Valerio used the silk stola from the old woman to tie Lucilla’s body to his and continued his march. Just before the water washed over Valerio he saw the remains of the Perpetua, lying on its side on the bottom of the Bay of Naples, its treasure chest open.