“I am Gaius, and I bring greetings from the Roman Emperor,” the envoy waves a hand. Numerous slaves flood the room, carrying urns and sacks made of leather and cloth.
“I give thanks for the largesse of Rome.” Teuta motions for him to be seated.
Gaius shakes his head. “A feast is unnecessary. The Vardiaei have already entertained us like kings. We have been waiting for you for five days, and have gotten to know each other well.”
“Really?” asks Teuta. Demet squirms in the chair beside her, his hand wandering to the sika which is not in his belt because he is sitting at the table and the servants have taken away his sword. Beneath the table, she lays a hand on his thigh to calm him down.
“Yes,” Gaius nods calmly, and remains standing. “The message I bring is short and simple.”
“Let me hear it, then,” orders Teuta, her voice cold. Pinnes and the Greek freeze in their seats, and an icy silence descends on the hall. This was not the anticipated direction of the negotiation.
“Rome demands that the honoured Queen Teuta immediately cease all acts of piracy directed against Roman merchant ships.”
“No problem,” Teuta agrees without hesitation and takes a breath to ask a question, but the ambassador rudely continues, though he saw the queen begin to speak.
“As a guarantee,” Gaius smiles coldly, “Rome demands the unconditional surrender of the Vardiaei and the establishment of a Roman province to be named Illyria, covering the entire territory currently ruled by Teuta and Demetrius in the name of Pinnius, the only true heir of King Agron.”
Pinnes smiles broadly at the Roman’s insolence and use of his chosen name. Demet starts. As he snarls under his breath, but a single glance from Teuta quenches his reaction. The only person in the room showing neither anger nor cheer is the thin, dark-skinned Ora, a Greek guest of the Vardiaei. He sits quietly, closely observing them all. Noticing that both Teuta and the messenger are covertly watching him, Ora calmly drinks some sabaia and, leaning back, settles comfortably, as though at any moment, he is going to watch the dance of the beautiful Vardiaeian girls.
“And if I do not agree?” Teuta breaks the silence.
“Then the Roman army will take you by force,” replies Gaius with venom, maintaining his domineering smile. “My advice is: Surrender, now.”
“What army, when you have but a single ship!” Teuta cannot help but laugh. At this, Pinnes straightens in his chair, Demet smiles knowingly, and Ora leans forward, expecting a confrontation.
“Perhaps you can explain it to her?” Gaius turns to Ora.
“Ora is my personal guest and a friend, but he is not, nor has he ever been, a counsellor. Not to me, nor to the Vardiaeian kingdom”, Teuta cuts in before Ora can open his mouth.
“The venerable Ora is a Greek spy,” says the Roman with contempt. He looks straight at Ora and addresses him, deliberately slow and articulate, as if the Greek were not capable enough of following the Latin: “and anyway, the time of the Greeks is over.”
“That’s right,” Pinnes interjects, “of the Greeks and of the Vardiaeians. The future is Rome.” Half in supplication, he looks first at Demet, then imploringly at his mother. “Let us surrender.”
“Never,” says Teuta. Demet nodded at Pinnes words, she notes. Cowardly man! Under the table, she digs her fingers into Demet’s thigh, so hard that he jumps.
“If you do not surrender, we will subdue you. It will be bloody, and quick. And we will begin immediately, by burning this fortress. To its foundations.”
Teuta looks at him, carefully and shrewdly. She tilts her head as if weighing her response, then suddenly, light as a dancer, she launches herself from the huge chair. She leaps over the massive table in a single jump. She lands with legs wide apart, firm and stable, directly before the ambassador. Gaius, a full head shorter than her, must be a brave man, since he does not flinch from Teuta, though all the other men in the hall – Demet and Ora and Pinnes and Gaius’s slave – did so the instant she moved, quite involuntarily.
Brave, or maybe just stupid, Teuta thinks as she raises her left hand, which grips her sika. Gaius is standing still, looking her straight in the eyes, so sure of himself and of Roman supremacy. Stupid, yes. Roman stupid. It doesn’t even occur to him that a woman could cut him down just like that, the thought crosses Teuta’s mind even as she swings at the dark-skinned Roman neck. In the next second, Gaius’ head, a domineering look still in his eyes, is rolling towards the urns filled with olive oil, and red blood is spilling down the body, a muffled sound signalling its contact with the stone floor of the Vardiaeian hall.
“This meeting is over.”
Teuta turns to Gaius’ slave and points at the severed head with her sika. “Take your trash and get out of here. The Vardiaei will not surrender to Rome. You have until moonrise to remove yourselves from Vardiaei territory. And do not enter our waters again!”