I originally started AURELIA with Carina, the heroine of the first three books, discovering her grandmother Aurelia’s personal diaries at their family farm in the country near Castra Lucilla. I loved bringing Carina and Conrad back in for a ‘guest appearance’. But then I looked at those scenes again, as did my structural editor and my critique partner, and we all three realised they had to go. Good stories begin in the middle of the action, ‘in media res’, and don’t have a long lead-up. So I had to press the delete button.
The beginning of AURELIA is now tight, dramatic and full of instant conflict and introduces the main players, as it should in a thriller. But for you Roma Nova fans, I thought you might like to see the cut scenes. And I would love to have your opinion. So here goes…
A tingle of excitement passed through Carina Mitela the day she found her grandmother Aurelia’s personal diaries.
The summer was limping away; the family vacation was over and they’d soon be leaving the Castra Lucilla estate and heading back to the city. Carina’s eldest daughter, Allegra, had driven off in her coupé in the early afternoon, hood firmly attached to protect her new pale cream leather upholstered treasure against the summer storm. She was due back on duty at 18.00, and during her training and early service in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, she had gathered only one minor blemish on her record so far. Which was more than could be said for her parents.
After Carina had checked that her son, Gil, was packing up his workshop in the outhouse and his twin, Tonia, was fully occupied saying goodbye to each horse in the stables, she had made herself clear up the study. She threw papers and files in a box and logged herself out of the local network. Somehow, she’d never got round to finishing sorting out her grandmother’s books. Piles of old leather-bound volumes smelling like stale biscuits stood waist high in higgledy-piggledy columns. Next time, I’ll finish them, she said to herself and sighed, knowing how unlikely that would be.
‘Hades take them,’ she muttered, as she knelt and grabbed random books from the nearest pile. She plunked them down on the lowest level of the old mahogany bookcase and pushed them back, but couldn’t get them to sit flush with the edge of the shelf. With an impatient grunt, she took them all out to start again. When she reached in to check she’d cleared them all out, she touched paper, several sheets of it. Yellowed, lined pages, bound with a brown leather lace and covered with a child’s handwriting.
“This is the journal of Aurelia Mitela, age 10 to – ”
Fascinated, Carina sank into a chair and started reading. It went in episodes, the longest lasting five weeks, and nearly a year’s gap when Aurelia was fourteen. Carina laughed at some of the things the little girl had noticed and nearly cried when she described her sadness, but determination to stay strong, after the passing of her cat.
She flicked through to the last page; Aurelia was sixteen now, jotting down her thoughts the morning of her emancipation ceremony.
“All my friends will be there. I’m the oldest so I’m going first. But I’m worried Q will turn up with C who’ll sneer as usual. He’d spoil anybody’s day.”
Carina stared at the last half-completed sheet, at the abrupt ending.
‘Carina! Where are you?’ A masculine voice was calling, bouncing between the stone walls of the corridor. Twenty seconds later Carina’s husband, Conrad, arrived and stood in the archway. Optimistically dressed in lightweight chinos and short-sleeved shirt, he grinned at her.
‘I thought I’d find you here. How long are you going to be?’
‘Here, Conrad, look at this.’
He scanned the sheets quickly, thumbing the corner of each one, the skin around his hazel eyes crinkling when he laughed at the then child’s comments.
‘Not that I can see. But I’m going to take a few minutes to look.’
‘A few minutes? You’re joking. If Aurelia wanted to hide something, she’d have done it properly. You’ll have to tear the entire farm apart.’
Like Conrad, Carina had worked as an intelligence officer; it was a matter of getting into her grandmother’s head and thinking where she would hide something so private. Only a child would have stuffed a diary at the back of the old bookcase or a teenager suddenly interrupted. The adult Aurelia with years in the PGSF, then as a diplomat and politician, let alone astute businesswoman, would have been a great deal cleverer. However, Carina didn’t only carry Aurelia’s genes, she’d been mentored by her.
She dismissed obvious choices such as secret panels in the backs of the shallow cupboards; last year’s full survey of the farmhouse had revealed nothing but metre thick walls all round apart from window openings. Even the gaps between the inner and outer skins had been packed solid. Similarly, the original earth, gravelled and tiled floors had no secret compartments. Carina was sure Aurelia wouldn’t have left anything so personal in the farm offices, dormitories or outhouses or even in the roof space above the bedrooms.
Apart from furniture, which she and Conrad had gone through a few years ago after Aurelia’s death, there was nowhere else to look. She sighed and rolled her eyes in frustration, but her gaze stopped on the massive beam running across the sitting room. The farm was many centuries old, legend said some parts of it went back to when the original Mitelus had built it in the fifth century, but that was highly fanciful, in Carina’s opinion. She was no expert, but the farm manager thought it was mostly a medieval rebuild after the Aquileians had attacked ‘the heathen Roma Novans’ during the Crusades.
Carina squinted at the beam and jabbed a finger upward.
‘There. Get me a ladder.’
Conrad came back with the steward who lugged a set of steps. The man held them as Carina clambered up. Conrad passed her a flashlight.
‘There’s a tiny crack running along.’
‘Domina, it’s an old beam,’ the steward said, ‘it’s only natural.’
‘Not a crack this straight.’ She looked down and smiled at Conrad who was caught looking at his watch.
‘I need something thin,’ she insisted, ‘to ease the crack.’
The steward handed Carina a slim round-ended kitchen knife, which she eased into the crack. At first, nothing happened. Under pressure, the thin blade flexed and bowed.
‘This is no good.’ She smiled again at Conrad. ‘Can you fetch me one of mine?’
‘As long as you don’t collapse the building around us,’ he said, only half-joking.
Even though she’d ceased to be an active special forces officer for several years, she couldn’t let go of her personal set of carbon-fibre combat knives, each blade centimetres of black meanness. She slid the blade in behind the kitchen knife. The wood almost groaned as she forced the two layers apart to reveal a long shallow compartment hollowed out in the top of the beam. She smiled to herself at the classic “hide it in plain sight” technique her grandmother had used.
Carina lifted out three leatherette-covered notebooks. No dust had got in but the smell of musty paper floated out. Sitting on the bottom step of the ladder, she opened one of the less scratched books. An old print photo fell out and fluttered to the floor. Carina picked it up, smoothed the creased corner of the white frame and studied the formal portrait of a young woman with a toddler on her lap. It was no doubt Aurelia: strong angular face, blue eyes, red-gold hair, almost the twin of Carina’s own face, but softer. Aurelia could only have been in her early twenties. And the toddler must have been Marina, Aurelia’s only child. Carina swallowed hard. That baby, her own mother, would be dead twenty-two years later.
The same precise, condensed writing she’d known so well in Aurelia’s later years; every trace of childish roundness in the first bunch of paper had disappeared. Her grandmother described entering the ruined city with the first troops in after the Great Rebellion to take Roma Nova back from the tyrant Caius Tellus. They’d stopped just short of the forum and cut the engines: the silence, the deserted streets, dust and filth everywhere. Then the first scurrying movements, a child clambering out from under a tarpaulin in a half-demolished house, the rounded, pleading eyes and outstretched skinny hand.
Carina flicked through the second notebook and stopped abruptly when she saw the name William Brown. Her own father. A tall man, sturdy as a farmer, light eyes, hazel, Aurelia had written, something that seemed to puzzle her. Carina made a moue. What was to puzzle? Aurelia wasn’t happy that he and her daughter, Carina’s mother, were leaving Roma Nova and going to live in Eastern America. There was some kind of scene with her mother crying and pleading.
Carina turned the next page, fascinated, eager to continue. She nearly jumped when Conrad touched her shoulder.
‘Hey, come on, everything’s loaded up.’
‘Bring them with you, otherwise we’re going to be back really late.’
In the car, windows up against the rain, seatbelt on, Carina leaned forward and picked the journals up again.
What did you think?
Read how the final version of AURELIA actually began!
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