Book Announcement and Character Interview for
A Story of Togas, Daggers and Magic
By Assaph Mehr
Get this book for 0.99 during the week of August 16-23
A tale of haunted houses and court houses.
This is the second Story of Togas, daggers, and Magic – for lovers of Ancient Rome, Hardboiled detectives, and Urban Fantasy.
A rich landlord finds tenants are abandoning his apartment buildings, spouting tales of horrific events and whispering that the old gods – the numina – came alive and cursed the buildings.
Enter Felix, a professional fox. Dressed in a toga and armed with a dagger, Felix is neither a traditional detective nor a traditional magician – but something in between. Whenever there is a foul business of bad magic, Felix is hired to sniff out the truth. Now he must separate fact from superstition – a hard task in a world where the old gods still roam the earth.
In Numina is set in a fantasy world. The city of Egretia borrows elements from a thousand years of ancient Roman culture, from the founding of Rome to the late empire, mixed with a judicious amount of magic. This is a story of a cynical, hardboiled detective dealing with anything from daily life to the old forces roaming the world.
In Numina provides readers a bit of everything — chills, thrills, mystery, and romance. Highly recommend for readers of alternate history, mystery, action-adventure, and similar genres.
— N.B. Willilams, author of Salt in the Blood
Felix the Fox. Investigator, magician, lover, compulsive payer of debts. Highly recommended.
— Jane Jago, author of Dai and Julia alternate Roman history
In Numina is going to be one of those books I read again and again.
— Anais Chartschenko, author of Bright Needles
Rich scenery, interesting plot twists, and enough danger to keep turning the pages. This story should be enjoyed by candlelight and with a glass of red wine.
— CC Dowling, author of The Dharkstar Dragon Saga
In Numina – if you love a great mystery, fascinating characters with enough plot twists and turns to rival any theme park ride – this is the book for you! 5 stars all the way – highly recommended.
— Rosie Chapel, author of The Hannah’s Heirloom Trilogy
Praise for the Stories of Togas, Daggers, and Magic series:
“Mehr creates a vivid cast and an equally vivid setting in which magic just seems to fit in perfectly.”
— Richard Knaak, NYT best-selling fantasy author of Legends of Huma
“Mehr’s imagined world based on ancient Rome feels at once familiar and dreamlike.”
— Ruth Downie, NYT best-selling author of the acclaimed Medicus series of Roman mysteries
2018 Author DB Book Cover Award
The first few chapters of In Numina are also available as a sample through Amazon Kindle and Goodreads.
Dealing with the occult
The following excerpt (just under 900 words) is from a scene near the middle of In Numina. Felix is investigating unnatural events in an insula – a large tenement buildings. He narrowed it down to curses that have been cast on the buildings but needs to defuse them. To achieve that, h must resort to some mind-altering substances…
We began like we had the night before. The building’s rectangular courtyard had a classic layout. There was a fountain in the centre with a cheap statue of a dolphin spraying waters that collected in a shallow pool. Around the pool were beds of earth for tenants to grow plants, which were now dried and dead. A shrine to the house’s guardian spirit stood behind the fountain and across from public fire-pits where tenants could cook their meals. These were built of brick and placed well away from the walls to reduce the chance of fire — a hazard in any city.
With Borax keeping watch, I set up my pan and other necessities in one of these fire-pits, prepared the psilocybe in eggs and intoned the right words. I took one bite, then a second. It didn’t take long for their effects to take hold.
A silvery, slimy trail like that of a slug led me to the apartment where the painting’s snakes had eaten a baby alive in his crib. The place was abandoned, everything gone except for the crib and the picture still hanging on the wall above it. I have only vague recollection of my baby sister. When she died of the ague during her second month of life, my mother had completely removed every trace of her from our home. Standing in that room, I was overwhelmed by the indescribable loss, a feeling I hope never to feel first hand.
The walls shimmered, acquiring a liquid, multi-coloured quality, like the faint rainbow of oils floating on a river downstream from where the washerwomen do their chores. The painting attained a depth, grew larger, took on a life beyond what could have been accommodated by a recess in the wall. I looked at the forest glade where the baby Hercules had been painted, and now showed only a grassy patch fringed with ominously dark trees. One could almost hear the rustling of leaves against an absence of bird noises that was somehow alarming. It stood as a window unto another world, yet I was not in the slightest tempted to reach into it, expecting the snakes would come biting me soon enough.
After a while of moving between the crib, the mural, and other apartments where atrocities happened, I located the silvery spiderweb of power that led me back towards its centre.
I explored the hall, stumbling occasionally but carrying on. . I ventured down the steps, carefully balancing myself with a hand on the wooden bannister which felt rough, scaly. Down and down, the tread of my feet on the stone steps echoed in the dark hallway, the stone walls closing in on me as I descended.
Stepping through one of the ground floor apartments, my eyes darted from side to side to catch the apparitions hovering at the edge of my vision. The snaking silver webs of power were multiplying, coming from all directions, passing through family shrines to the lares and di penates, and climbing the walls like suffocating vines, to converge on a potted tree in the corner.
Borax was standing at the ready, his pose the relaxed posture of a fighter about to pounce, but his fingers drummed lightly around on the iron cooking pan in his hands. He looked askance at any statue or bas-relief that might suddenly come alive. It says something about my life when the gladiator I employ to guard it prefers a heavy iron skillet as his weapon of choice.
The tree that sprouted from the clay pot was a leafy bay, its roots packed tightly in the knee-high container. I searched the base of the tree, thinking to unearth something from the dirt, but I should have looked at the tree. As my fingers dug into the earth, a branch snapped down with the head of a snake, biting my arm. I jumped back, staring at a tree that was now a coiling mass of snakes, snapping at me, like the head of Medusa the Gorgon.
Without thinking, I grabbed a discarded folding chair and threw it at the branches-snakes, then jumped into the opening and hacked at the snakes with my dagger. Borax joined me with a yell, stabbing at the tree trunk with his sword and swatting the snake-heads away with his pan. The heads made satisfying crunching sounds when he managed to smash them.
After a particularly big swipe with the pan cleared an opening, Borax aimed a mighty kick at the terracotta pot. He managed to tip it over and it cracked on impact, spilling the earth from inside it. Something metallic shone in the dirt and I kicked the object, moving it away from the snakes.
While Borax kicked and stomped with his heavy boots, the snakes appeared less fearsome as their tails remained connected to the fallen tree trunk. I took out another specially prepared leather purse from the sack of supplies and dropped the tabula defixionis into it. This device wasn’t enough to completely block the strong magia of the curse but dampened the enchantment sufficiently to turn the snakes’ scales back to bark. As they slowed, Borax took pleasure smashing them to bits. I tied the cords of the purse in a ritualistic knot, mumbling a few words of power and a supplication to the gods.
Character Interview With Borax from Numina, #2 in the Stories of Togas, Daggers and Magic Series.
Tell us a little about where you grew up. What was it like there?
I grew up in the forests of Arbarica, under evergreen trees. We lived in a small village, just a few families, and my father and brothers hunted for furs and meat. At festivals we went to the oppidium to trade furs for tools and other things, and then stayed the nights when the bards sang and the druids dispensed law and lore and enthralled everyone with feats of magic.
Did you have any favourite toys as a child? Any cherished memories?
All the memories I have are cherished, because there are so few of them. I was barely thirteen when the legions came. I took up a sword and stood with everyone I ever knew against the invaders. It didn’t help. I have no idea how I survived, I don’t even recall the actual battle. Then I was chained and marching day after day to Egretia. I was a big child, so a lanista from a gladiator school bought me. That was the end of my childhood.
What do you do now?
My dominus is a kind master, and I owe him my life. Gladiators may not often die on the sands, but the retirement options are limited, often down to begging. What else is there for someone who only knows how to fight, but can no longer do it since he’s so scarred and wounded? Even those that survive the five years or thirty bouts to earn their freedom have it hard finding jobs.
So Felix took me in when I had no prospects, gave me this metal hand you see, and now I protect his life. I go wherever he goes, and I make sure he comes back.
What can you tell us about your latest adventure?
You’d have to ask the master about that. My dominus is very strict about client confidentiality. But without betraying any names… Well, I got to be a gladiator again. There were things going on – with secrets and gods and sacrifices and religion and rich people tampering with things they shouldn’t – and I have no idea what they meant. I wasn’t privy to those conversations; I was just there when the going got rough. But when they did! Ah, to feel the adulation of the crowds again. Now that is something that makes the blood roar in your ears.
What did you first think when you lost your hand?
I wasn’t thinking much. We’ve been drugged, and woke up in chains. They beat us up, broke the master’s leg. Then that crazy incantator smeares cream on my hand and started chanting. I didn’t get what was going on, I was still groggy from being punched. It didn’t hurt, but it started to ache. Like my grandad used to complain, in cold winters. I saw the wrinkles, the brown liver spots, I just didn’t understand what was going on.
Then he reversed the effects, and it all felt normal. My fingers moved just fine. Then the bastard didn’t again. But didn’t stop till my hand shriveled, crumbled into dust. It wasn’t painful, not like getting slashed by a sword, but I was running hot and cold flashes worse than any fever. My stomach turned, and I broke out in sweat.
When he put the cream on my other hand, well, then it was back to blinding, burning rage. I grabbed his finger and broke it, that was the only thing I could do chained as a I was. I was going to rip it off, even if it wouldn’t have changed anything, but then the master jumped him from behind, and… Well, we’re here and he ain’t.
What was the scariest thing in your adventures?
Besides facing crazy incantatores, wielding flaming whips or making my hand rot to dust? Actually, by the time we get to face them, or any other sort of violence for that matter, there is no time to feel fear. Fear for a gladiator is what happens when nothing else is – when it’s quiet and you get to think about what will happen to you in the future. What will be your fate when you can’t fight any more, when you ain’t useful. The prospects, they are scary.
What is the worst thing about working for Felix as a bodyguard?
The sewers. You won’t believe the number of times we had to go down there. I grew up in the green forests! On smells of pine needles, of blooming mistletoe, of crisp snow and fresh water. And here, in this great city, we get to go in the most horrible muck imaginable a few times a year. If you ever thought the smells in the Forum are bad, what with the masses of unwashed bodies eating boiled cabbage and pissing urine – well, you ain’t smelled what it’s like when it all trickles down and concentrates down there.
I swear, it’s as if the gods wished to punish the dominus for hubris, and land him in it every time he gets cocky and needs a reminder to show piety.
What is the best thing about it?
I know my master will take care of me, and won’t abandon me even when – if – I grow old. I’ve seen my fellow gladiators reach past their peak. If they’re lucky, they get sold on as door slaves, but often it’s a quiet word and a pouch of coins, and then when they step on the arena sands suddenly the blood-thirsty the crowds get a real fight to the death.
Tell us a little about your friends.
I get more socializing that you might think. Sure, I follow in the master’s steps and must keep an eye out for goons when he’s working. But, and don’t tell him I said it, there are plenty of times when he ain’t working for no one, not for serious pay at least, and instead he just likes to read.
So there’s Dascha, his housekeeper. When I first saw her I thought she was an evil spirit, some imp. But she’s just old, and rather nice if you get over her squint and toothless grins. We live together and I help her with the shopping, but it’s not like we have lots to talk about.
When the master allows it, or when he goes out himself, we often visit my old master Crassitius. Him and Felix are old buddies, and while they drink I get to catch up with the other gladiators I know.
Any romantic involvement?
I was hoping that Hippolyta might take notice of me, but I guess that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Look, I’m a slave, in a small household. I don’t get to meet many women who’d be interested in me. The dominus is kind enough to give me an allowance for prostitutes, but that ain’t love. Hippolyta… well, she was something else.
Whom (or what) do you really hate?
Fish sauce. No, really. How can civilized people sprinkle the ooze of rotting fish on anything, I just don’t know. It’s barbaric. My master always orders it for us when he buys us food on the go, and it’s not my place to criticize the man who provides for me, but really – for once I’d like to have some food that tastes of actual meat.
What does the future hold for you?
Blood and violence. Like I said, retirement options for gladiators aren’t much, and one with only one hand is limited to begging. I thought that if I’m lucky, I’ll get sold as a door slave. My future would be a stool in the shade of some door where I’ll be responsible of greeting strangers – and scaring unwanted guests – and nothing much else.
But, really, if you know my master, blood and violence are a safer bet.
Can you share a secret with us, which you’ve never told anyone else?
You see these tattoos on my chest? It’s a sign of manhood in my tribe. Was. I’m not even sure if anyone of my tribe is still alive. But when I grew up, I sought up people who knew, and got myself the woad tattoos of my people.
My master, he thinks none of them are magical. And he’s right. Probably. One of ‘em, this one right here, was supposed to have power in it. Now I don’t know, but I’d like to think it really does. Time will tell.
Assaph has been a bibliophile since he learnt to read at the age of five, and a Romanophile ever since he first got his hands on Asterix, way back in elementary school. This exacerbated when his parents took him on a trip to Rome and Italy – he whinged horribly when they dragged him to “yet another church with baby angels on the ceiling”, yet was happy to skip all day around ancient ruins and museums for Etruscan art.He has since been feeding his addiction for books with stories of mystery and fantasy of all kinds. A few years ago he randomly picked a copy of a Lindsay Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco novel in a used book fair, and fell in love with Rome all over again, this time from the view-point of a cynical adult. His main influences in writing are Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, Barry Hughart and Boris Akunin.Assaph now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, kids, cats, and – this being Australia – assorted spiders. By day he is a software product manager, bridging the gap between developers and users, and by night he’s writing – he seems to do his best writing after midnight.