The Etruscan Curse

This is a historical novel, set on the eve after the Battle of Lake Regillus, and based on the people in our podcast’s Family Saga. There is no need, however, to follow the podcast, in order to enjoy this novel.

Feel free to read the first few chapters right here. I hope to finish the first draft by October of this year.

Expect slight changes in the text, every so often, as I find typos and other mistakes. Creative writing critiques are more than welcome. Contact info here.

Two hundred fifty-six years after the legendary foundation of Rome — the year 496 BC by our accounts, a battle ensued, greater than anything Italy had seen, so far.

Romans fought a formidable coalition of Latin cities, led by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the ousted last king of Rome. According to witnesses, the clash produced a record number of casualties; its place marked by the gods.  A storm descended upon the field, just as fighting ended. To wash away the blood, some said. To cleanse Rome of a longstanding, Etruscan curse, a few believed.

This is the story of the people — and their gods, who lived through the epic engagement. The battle of Lake Regillus.

Year of the consulship of Albus and Tricostus. The Ides of May.

The first drops of rain fell like stones.

===============

I

===============

“Twelve year old girls do not go out at night, by sweet goddess Juno!”

Marcia disobeyed her mother.

A little later, she was running so hard her dress was going tatters. She kept pulling faces and repeating ‘sweet goddess Juno.’

The battlefield couldn’t be much farther away. Perhaps they were still fighting. Perhaps she could catch daddy, and stop him from being harmed. That would be so cool!

Dad brought her here so many times. They would run, and chase sheep if no shepherds were around, watching their herds. They would drive them to the high slopes of the crater, where the poor animals would tumble and roll, because no grass grew up there. Little Marcia would laugh herself silly, seeing the wooly things rolling on the gravel. But every time, she had to cry herself to sleep at night, because she never meant to hurt the sheep. It was just fun, and it was always fun to be with father.

She implored to the gods she didn’t believe in.

“Where are you, daddy?”

She stopped in her tracks. Right behind the last rolling hill, the place was riddled with lying corpses. She straightened her back, gasped, and held both hands to her nose. The foul stench of human blood.

She rushed to the nearest man in that ocean of bodies. Some still twitching.

“Daddy!”

The stink was assaulting her nose. Holding herself from puking, she knelt down. She pulled on dad’s shoulder. Half a jaw rolled out of the head, tumbling down to her feet. She scrambled to a jump by instinct, thinking the jaw alive. She fell on her back, heaving for air. It wasn’t dad.

A moment later, she darted to the next body. It wasn’t father, either. And the next. And the next. Surrounded by pong and the miasma of blood, she raised her head, bent over, and convulsed herself into a single, huge barf, both hands on her tummy. Her cloth sandals were gone, her tiny feet wore blood and vomit. Turning as if spying for sandals, a helmet caught her eye. A proud semicircle of brass, crowned with a brush of scarlet horse mane, pointing to the skies. It was so majestic and — it was dad’s helmet!

She ran to the man, but it wasn’t dad, either. The helmet was skewed from a blunt blow, its rim embedded in a melting face. Marcia didn’t need to see the face, to know it wasn’t her father.

Marcia was sobbing. “Daddy…”

As the storm grew in intensity, she found out if she waited a bit, a flash would soak the whole field in light, and all she had to do was — quickly, watch the contours. Every grotesque figure offered something that glimmered. A pilum’s crooked tip, encrusted in someone’s heart. A belt buckle, holding somebody’s bowels, half hanging out. A full chest piece with fake muscle lines along the abdomen, showing the place where a sword entered the body. And just as fast as the light came up, darkness took back over, forcing Marcia to cinch her eyes. Thunder would follow. So loud she was sure even the dead were ducking in fear.

She sobbed as she went on, and the wind got cold. As soon as that happened, drops began to hit the ground. She hurried, as if there was a place to hurry. Something moved. She froze. When the movement repeated itself, she crouched down. It was a small deer, perhaps a week old. Two at most.

“How did you get in here, you little one?” she said. “Did you not listen to your mommy, too?”

She was drawing a circle in her mind, by which she would drive the deer out of this hell. A lightning later, a wolf caught her eye. Less than fifty paces behind the deer, and inching in.

“You beast,” she said, cursing the predator. In her mind, wolves were all father taught her to hate. They never did what they appeared to be doing, and they only attacked in packs. Unless, of course, the prey was a lone, helpless baby deer. Wolves were Rome. Beasts so stupid, they howled at the moon. A scourge that deserved to be wiped off the face of the earth. Her father told her all about them, and she was going to dispatch this one to the underworld — yes sir!

After that, she was going to take care of the baby deer.

And after that — she was going to find daddy!

The rain increased, and none of the three made a move. Her feet were sinking in a mix of blood and mud, the two liquids that ruled her world, now. A lightning lit up that world, but this one was followed by its thunder so close, it startled the deer. It ran. Marcia jumped up, to get in between the wolf and the deer, and she lifted both her arms with a roar. The wolf stopped, as if surprised. The lightning stuck for two seconds longer, splitting into many more, like the roots of a tree. A second later — darkness. She kept track of the wolf, but she lost sight of the deer. She made a step. The ground under her feet gave way.

By the time she hit bottom, her face was all bloodied in a thorn bush. Her shriek during the fall, made sure everyone heard her. Up the ravine, she could see the silhouette of the animal. Damn wolf!

Not more than a minute later, the carnivore whimpered away, as if kicked hard. The sound of it died. The rain was now a downpour, and the walls of the ravine became torrents of mud and water. Next, there was laughter. A man had seen her fall, and whoever he was, he was calling for someone else. They laughed and spoke. Their heads pop over the edge, they were going to get her.

“Scavengers,” she said.

They were trying to find a way to get to the girl. Father had told her about battle scavengers, and how they captured slaves, out of the bad luck of the impaired, the trapped, and the dying. She tried to cover herself with branches of thorns, and hoped they wouldn’t dare rolling down to her. She shivered. Cold and fear.

“Help me, daddy,” she said.

A scream. Marcia recognized more voices. More men. There was some kind of altercation going on, above ground. In her despair, she asked herself, why she had come down to the field, while her sisters had not? Not even Arminia was willing to go find daddy. Yes, she was father’s favorite, but most of the times, that made her feel even worse. She tried to pray to some of the gods, but couldn’t. Why couldn’t she get herself to believe in them?

As she curled up under the thorns, there was a clasp. Another one followed. A scream, and yet another sound of a sword. A big shape appeared over the edge. One of them was coming down. No! He wasn’t coming down — he was falling in! Like a boulder, he fell over her full force, and a deaf pain followed. A deep groan. Marcia managed to suppress her scream, but his mass was pinning her down. A lightning struck and she saw him. He was dead before he ever fell.

She squeezed herself out from under the scavenger, aware she was bleeding from within. She touched her inner thighs, a tingle she never sensed before. The smell was new to her, too. How could she have hurt herself, there?

Her mind drove in circles, and she passed out.

#

On the other end of the battlefield, old Marcus was turning bodies and cursing the rain. Every time a lightning shot down from the clouds, he and the slave behind him froze until both lightning and thunder petered out, and the night went pitch-black again. They didn’t want to be seen, and so they crawled and dragged their findings behind them, in a tight net. Had it not been for the downpour, they would have been done by now, but the mud made everything slower.

“Here’s another one,” said the old man. He shifted the dead man’s body, bloody feces and entrails spilling and mixing. Coughing a curse, he pulled the shield from under him. “And it’s a good one.”

The slave took the shield, and checked it for spear tips and sword pommel blows. He placed it on top of the other shields, and so the net grew heavier as they went. Every ten or so shields, they ran back to their cart, hidden behind a grove of oaks.

Old Marcus was making sure they kept far out of view of dictator Aulus Postumius and his legionaries, for if they were discovered, there would be some explaining to do. Back in the city, men knew him for the quality of his products, but that didn’t make him rich, or patrician. He still had to pinch every as to make ends meet, just like his father did, in the times of king Tarquin. To Orcus, he cursed. Can’t change life. And so, every time Rome had a battle, Old Marcus collected shields from dead legionaries, and had them like new.

But this was a secret between himself and Oxos, his slave. And Oxos had no tongue. Nobody else could ever know of that, not even his son. After all, nobody was going to buy shields from a shield scavenger.

“Let’s find one or two more, and we are done for it,” said the old man, cinching his eyes. Rain poured down his face.

The slave pointed to the other side. A broken pilum was standing in the air, encrusted in a man’s shoulder blade. The shield was under his body, all bent. He probably fell on it, as it seemed, he was struck from the back. Old Marcus dismissed the shield right away, even before a lightning would illuminate the scene.

“It’s too bent, Oxos. We can’t fix it,” he said, pointing in the other direction. “Let’s try there!”

Oxos pulled at master again, pointed at his own mouth, and made a sign as if breathing. Old Marcus stopped in his tracks, and took a second glance at the scene. The man was alive!

They both approached the warrior, and Oxos checked the depth of the lance. It went through and through, the man had as many chances of staying alive, as a hawk in a snake’s coil. Yet, Oxos managed to break the spear’s long end, leaving only the part inside the man’s body. Old Marcus helped him up, and recognized the shield was of his own making. The man was a Roman — and a client of his, but Marcus was sure he never met him before. Perhaps he was an exile, in which case he was worthless in Rome. He would be executed, in a public display, as soon as Postumius’s soldiers found him alive.

Thirteen years earlier, when Junius Brutus and the king’s own nephew chased Tarquin out of the city, many followed the deposed king. They were soon called rebels and exiles, and other nasty names, as they didn’t take to the new rulers in town. If aprehended, they were publicly flogged and executed, either by decapitation, or by being hurled off a steep cliff named the Tarpeian rock.

During the reign of Tarquin, anyone who came under suspicion, for whichever reason, was summarily condemned to be thrown off the rocky outcrop. Now, the so-called Republicans were doing the same thing, but they kept saying nobody in Rome was put to death without a fair trial.

To old Marcus, this hypocrisy was a major insult.

An idea shot up his face. He gazed up, left and right, and took a rash decision. He was going to save this man from certain ‘republican’ death!

“We have to get this man back to Rome. Now,” he said.

Oxos’s eyes went wide open; never in his life did old Marcus take a risk of the sort. As if Oxos could speak, old Marcus went into defending his own choice of action.

“This man could be an exile,” he said. He stopped himself, and started again. “This man is an exile, from around here. Tusculum, perhaps. If we can drag him back, under cover of darkness, he can make it, and we don’t need to buy another slave.”

To Oxos, the slave-thing was just an excuse. They had Cutu, the Cappadocian, and he was a good slave. But he also knew better than disobeying his master, and so they put the exile onto their cart. Oxos went to get the oxen from out of their hiding, and they readied to leave.

Just as the worst of the downpour was getting over, they started criss-crossing empty fields towards Rome.

#

Dictator Aulus Postumius Albus continued with the review of his troops. Even though they beat the enemy, things didn’t look good.

A few moments earlier, he took stock of the situation. His magister equitum — Master of the Horse, Titus Aebutius Elva was injured, when he and Octavius Mamilius went at each other’s throats, right at the beginning of the fight. Aebutius had to command his troops from afar, wounded in his chair, propped on a hill.

Now, two thousand men lay in and around the Lazaret. Auxiliary units were sent to villages in the area for supplies, Tusculum amongst them. Break their gates, if needed, the dictator instructed.

One of his officers stepped forward, pressing a fist against his chest plate.

“Sir. Your Master of the Horse,” he said.

“Yes. I am aware of that,” Postumius said. “I am letting him go. And his entire column. Go, and use the opportunity to spread word of our victory.”

The officer thanked profusely and left the tent.

Studying the roster, he himself prepared, the day before the fight, the counted the dead. Most of his big names were either injured or dead.

Postumius was known for his rigid discipline, his meticulous strategy planning, and his huge parchments with columns and rows. He even used a military clepsidra — a water contraption to measure time, which he brought from a trip to Greece. Nobody was allowed to touch it, lest one wished to get punished. Postumius believed, it measured time with much more precision than a sundial would.

Next, Postumius called one of his cavalry officers forward. He gave him a scroll, with the insignia of his dictatorial ring pressed on the waxy seal that guaranteed its secrecy.

“Spendius,” he said. “For Gaius Papirius, the Pontifex Maximus. Do not stop on the way. May Mercury be with you.”

“Yes, Sir,” Spendius said, as he took the scroll. His horse was ready outside the general’s tent.

“Wait,” Postumius said. “I want you to take this to my wife, as well.”

He produced a smaller parchment, folded in four, and already sealed. A blue ribbon wrapped the message, as added decoration.

“Now, can somebody tell me what exactly happened, at the very beginning? Did old Tarquinius charge on horseback? Come on, he is like — what? Eighty-five? Eighty-eight?”

“Yes, Sir,” an officer said.

“Whom was he after, the old crazy man?”

“You, Sir.”

“Me?” Postumius laughed. “He charged on me? How did I miss that?” He couldn’t believe it.

“Many of us intervened, Sir,” the officer said. “He only made it some two hundred yards from you, Sir.”

“Well, my thank you, I guess. You will be mentioned, come triumph day.”

He went on to more important topics. “Officers. The topic of the two knights who apparently fought on our side. We will enact a senatorial investigation about that, to confirm if this is an apparition of deities Castor and Pollux. Now, should this be a true apparition, we will also involve the Quirinal priests, and of course, a temple will be consecrated. But in the meantime, please keep this issue under wraps. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” all officers said.

Postumius went to the next topic of importance, and marked it on his big parchment.

“Gentlemen, we have lost many good men. Three prior consuls. Seven sitting senators. And we have four thousand prisoners to feed. Tarsenus!”

A short centurion stepped forward. “Sir!”

“Find leaders among the prisoners. Pick two hundred men or so, to be beheaded. Make them look angry. They hate Rome — people need to see that. Makes for a good show.”

“Yes, Sir,” Tarsenus said.

After a long sigh, Postumius went on. “Yes, we killed the sons of Tarquinius, and we killed Mamilius, the man who — we think — bribed many of the Latin cities to show up here, tonight. We won, but barely. Rome will become a magnet for fake healers, doomsayers, and prostitutes. We’ll have street fights and rampant disease. We’ll assist Sempronius in keep peace in the city. I know this is not the army’s turf, but for once, we’ll do it. Albinus. Caeliomontanus.”

Both officers stepped forward at once.

“Your cohorts are not to be disbanded, until after the triumph. Understood?”

“Understood, Sir.”

Both centurions could sense the relief of the rest of the men, behind them. Bad luck. None of their men were going home. Not today, not even in a week.

“Furius, prepare a list of family members for the following fallen heroes. I have to know their wives’ names, their business, and any other important facts. Take note!”

“Ready, Sir,” Furius said, producing a tiny wax tablet, and a stylus.

Postumius began to read. “Proconsul Valerius Volusus. Dead. Proconsul Herminius Aquilinus, hero of the war against Porsena. Dead. Proconsul Opiter Verginius Tricostus. Dead.”

Every time Postumius read the word DEAD, centurions hit their chest pieces with their wristlets. As Postumius kept reading, the bangs, in unison, got louder.

“Senator Quintus Geganius Macerinus. Dead! Senator Lucius Nautius. Dead! Senator Sextus Festus. Dead! Senators, and brothers, Vopiscus and Spurius Julius. Dead! Senator and high priest Manius Mamercinus. Dead! Senator, and father of seven male heirs, Numerius Fabius Pictor. Dead! May Mars lead them to their peace.”

The centurions roared, and half the fort woke up with the sound. Seconds later, the fort roared back.

“Their living relatives, parents, wives, or brothers, if present, are to be seated on the pulpitum. Second row, so that they can cover their faces, should they wish so. Same for their sons, unless they are too young.”

“Yes, Sir,” Furius said. “And young Marcius, Sir?”

“What Marcius?”

“Caius Marcius, Sir. A seventeen year old boy, of patrician lineage. The Latins killed his father, last week, in Corbio. He fought bravely, Sir. As if a fury had taken him over.”

Postumius sighed. The officer kept on.

“We also have the case of a boy — a plebeian named Marcus. He daggered down a man, double his size, and then—”

“We all fought bravely, Furius,” Postumius said. “I had to order my own cavalry to dismount, and fight on foot, when the exiles pressed us in the center. Send me a report about this young man, and I will read it, if you want. But we can’t be rewarding every novice in this battle. If things go on, the way I see it, we will be having wars every single year, until we don’t fix the Latin league problem. I think people should get used to this. Doing well in a fight doesn’t mean you get a grass crown.”

“My apologies, Sir.”

Postumius didn’t reply. He was already elsewhere, scanning over his parchment. Silence took over the tent for a while, and outside, the rain had stopped. In another hour or so, it would be daytime. Everybody was exhausted.

A soldier ran into the tent. His face was white as snow.

“Sir! A scout’s report. An army of Volscians is on its way, straight from the east! It’s thousands of them, Sir! They are an hour out, we believe.”

Postumius sighed. He would have to think of his wife, and their soon-to-be-born child, later on. He prayed for a son. That’s why he wrapped the message in a beautiful, blue ribbon.

Apparently, he was still going to need the clepsidra and his big parchment, tonight.

#

As the army unit was disbanded, young Marcus walked home. The initial march from the battlefield to Rome took a full day, but he barely noticed the drill. For all it mattered, they could have been stomping for weeks.

“How could you do that?” his inner voice blared at him, again and again, during the march.

Now, back in his civilian robes, he walked the way from the Castra to his home, as if unconscious.

Vicus Longa, followed by a turn right on Vicus Tuscus, the street where Etruscans set up their shops, since the times of Numa, the second king of Rome. From there, his home street, the Vicus Materiarius. The street stretched from the harbor, all the way to the Roman Forum. Lumber shops and carpenters, rope-makers and harness makers, blacksmiths and quarry prospectors, they all vied for attention.

He turned into the Forum Boarium, where cattle was traded since the time of the kings. The place was flooded. Stands stood empty or nearly destroyed, crates of merchandise floating all over the place. Tents were sloshing and waving along the current, and a mud-line was leaving its mark on the white walls of the buildings nearby. People waded through water, and if he didn’t live there, Marcus wouldn’t be able to tell where the Tiber’s left shore ended, and Rome’s lowlands began.

Rome had floods since he had memory. When would senators do something about it?

There she was — his mother. Brushing away the tide with a broom made of branches and hay straws. The flood made it into their home again, but their workshop was dry.

“Mother,” he said. “I am back!”

“My son,” she said. Her face lit up in a tired smile, for she had been worried for days. Marcus sensed she wanted to hug him right there, in front of all their neighbors, and so he quickly side-stepped, as if avoiding more mud. She restrained herself — Marcus was now a handsome, tall man, and wasn’t to be treated as a child any longer. It’s just that, it was so hard for her, to let go. This was the first time her young boy had been levied to war, and the night of the storm, she feared the worst.

“What happened here, mother?”

“The same as every year, son,” his mother said. “The gods are washing away our sins.”

“Yes, mother,” he said.

Some joked the flood was meant to flush away Tarquin’s last droppings, stuck in Rome’s sewers for years. But he wouldn’t say that to mother. That was soldier’s talk.

Seeing as he pondered going in or waiting, Sabina said, “don’t worry, I already brushed the water out of our place. Do come in!”

As Marcus stepped in, the aroma of incense spoke of fear and prayers. Mother had been offering myrrh and frankincense to ensure her son’s return.

“I wonder what father will say,” he said. “Frankincense is not cheap, mother.”

“I don’t care! What did we buy it for, when in Capua, if not for this?”

This. To mother, this meant the crisis she went through, alone in their hut. This meant uncertainty. Perhaps she was right, Marcus pondered. Otherwise, father would have mother turn it off, by now.

“Is father in the workshop?”

“H-he… he hasn’t come back,” mother said. “He left the day before the battle, but he hasn’t come back.”

Marcus turned. This was unusual.

“I was hoping father and you would have met, out there” she said. Panic was written all over her face. Her hands were clasped in front of her plain robe; a foot of mud along the hem.

“Oh, mother,” Marcus said. “We were kept in the fort. Word was, another army was coming, from Antium, or from Corioli. In fact, I am here only because Postumius let Aebutius leave. The rest of them are still there, mother!”

“Oh, heavens,” mother said. In her mind, the gods were cruel and selfish, and the fact that her old man didn’t come back, could only mean one thing. “He said he needed a day at the most!” She was on the brink of crying.

“A day? For what?” Marcus asked. “Why can’t he just wait here, and see how many shields we need?” Marcus sat on an ornate Etruscan stool that adorned the hall, but right away, he jumped back up. “Sit, mother! I’ll get uncle Lucius, and we’ll go find him!”

“No, son,” mother said. “Your uncle is on his way here. He went to the Forum, less than an hour before you arrived. Rest, and have some wine and gruel. And some cheese! You are weak!” Again, mother had to fight the urge to squeeze her boy into her bosom, as if he was seven, and not seventeen.

As Marcus began to eat, his mind began to sap his strength. He tried to appear strong, but within, he was shaken to the core, and mother was sure something was greatly amiss. She wouldn’t ask, but she knew. Mothers just know. She walked out the hut, grabbed her broom, and pretended to be busy. There was so much water all over the place. In a week or so, mosquitoes would swarm the city, and she sighed. May the gods not arm the bloodthirsty insects with yet another illness or wrath.

“Bonum mane.” A neighbor greeted mother. “Has your son returned, Sabina?”

“Salve, Papiria,” his mother said. “Indeed he has!”

The conversation kept going on. It was as if fate was cornering him, little by little. To Dis with gossips, and neighbors, and this stupid battle. What will I do?

His mother showed up through the door frame, with the nosey neighbor in tow.

“Look who’s been worrying about you, son,” she said.

“Oh! Salve, Domina,” Marcus said. He struggled, what else to say. “Quid novi?”

As soon as he said that, he regretted it. Quid novi? What a stupid thing to ask. He had no interest in news, least of all from her. Marcus was offended by the intrusion. Nobody would dare do this to father. People left father alone, and they only greeted him when he greeted them first. So convenient, he reckoned. Some day I’ll be like father! Right away, he shook the idea. Bona Dea, I will not be like father!

“Oh, you tell us, young warrior,” Papiria said, in her shrilly voice. “We heard a lot of news. Especially, since the apparition. The entire city is in joy, by all the fairies.”

“Ah, yes! Castor and Pollux!” mother said, partly to both. “This is so interesting.”

To Marcus, this was not interesting at all, and he stood up.

“I’ll go to the workshop, mother. Much needs to be done. Salve,” he said, excusing himself.

“Of course, young warrior.”

The annoying woman kept babbling. To his ire, he overheard mother inviting the Papirii for dinner in two weeks’ time. The whole family! What a boar! As he walked, he reasoned. At least this woman helped lift mother’s spirit, and he himself hasn’t been thinking of his own problem since she showed up!  In muddy water up to his ankles, he splashed through the street, only to pause on the other side, shaking his sandals free of the mud. He sprung the workshop door open.

“Father?”

“Shhhhh,” old Marcus said.

He grabbed him by both arms, and dragged him inside. Oxos latched the door shut behind him, and the whole workshop was dark.

“Silence,” father said. With his hand, he motioned Marcus to follow him into the second leather room. There, a man lay prostrated on a wooden contraption, an ungodly wound under the shoulder. Bandages showed there was another wound, right behind the shoulder plate. The man was unconscious, tied to the table, and a sponge was on his lips. Marcus pointed at the sponge.

“For the thirst,” old Marcus said. “This man won’t wake up today or tomorrow, the physician said. Three days, perhaps.”

“Physician?” Marcus asked. “H-how… how long have you two…”

“We arrived here this morning, before dawn. Your mother doesn’t know! Cutu,” Marcus said, turning to the boy. “Bring the shield!”

Cutu jumped to do master’s bidding, and Marcus checked it out.

“You see that?” the old man said. “No name, no workshop!”

“But…”

It didn’t didn’t make sense.

“It doesn’t make sense, right?” old Marcus grinned, certain he was reading his son’s mind. “But it’s our shield! A shield of our making!”

“Yes, I can see that,” Marcus said.

The trim. The groove where the glue was injected beneath the wood. Even the tiny emblem where Dio would engrave the recipient’s name. Except there was no name engraved.

“So, is this why you barricaded yourself in here — make everyone think nobody was here?” A hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Well, not exactly. We found this man the night after the fight…”

“Of course,” said Marcus, immediately regretting his words.

“Do not interrupt me, Marcus! If you have a question, do ask, but when I speak, you will listen!” His voice demanded respect.

“Yes, father. I do have a question,” Marcus said.

Old Marcus stopped. Eyebrows raised, he waited.

For an instant, Marcus wanted to ask him why he was a Roman — a proud modern Roman, whose father lusted for the old regime? Why was his old man working for the fall of the Republic by night, while playing it nice, by day? What would his father say if he knew his son knew? Those monthly underground escapades? Yes! Maybe he should just utter the question, blurt it all out, and let the dice fall, where they may. A second passed, and Marcus blinked. He faltered.

“My question is… who is this man, father?”

“That is not for you to know, right now,” father said. His tone quiet. And just like that, with one single change of tone, he put his son back to where he wanted him. “In time, you’ll know, son. But not today!”

Marcus was aghast! He turned to Oxos, as if prying for answers. The slave looked back, straight in the eye. There was loyalty and iron-clad obedience. Obedience to his father.

“Now, go back home, saying nothing of this. And have mother prepare some food. No! Have her go to the market first, and I will play I just got home, by the time she gets back from her shopping! Do you understand, son?”

“Are you…?”

“Damn Dis and Orcus, Marcus-Aelius-Stellatinus! Have you understood, what I just told you to do?” Father’s face was red like a radish.

“Yes, father.”

Marcus walked out of the workshop. The neighborhood was aware old Marcus was back, from wherever he’d been.

#

Cavalry officer Quintus Spendius rode as fast as he could, and he arrived in Rome early in the morning. The commonwealth was mostly asleep.

As he rode in from the southern-most gate, he had the best view on the lowlands, by the river Tiber.

A grimace on his face painted itself. The southern edges of the main forum, the entire cattle forum, and all the shops glued to the two public docks, they melted into one single shiny surface — one single shallow lake. Water was slowly seeping in from the hills. Bad. The plebes on the Aventine, the Capitoline, and the marshes between the two hills, plus all the poverty-stricken blocks next to the Circus Maximus, they were all about to wake up with yet another flooding.

Spendius sighed, as he pondered which way to go. He scanned streets from his vantage point. People were assembling near the temple of Vestals, and the fountain nearby. They seemed excited. Youngsters were running about, and more people kept joining the small crowd.

He trotted his horse left for a few moments, still thinking which way to cut through. In the end, he cut right through the crowd.

“To Pluto with it,” he said. “Let them see that messengers are already working on the issues at hand.”

This wasn’t a spy mission, regardless of what his message contained. The fact that he was in Rome, meant Rome’s victory over their foes; this was an unmistakable message to all. Surely those early birds would notice, and surely word would spread that the Pontifex Maximus was having messages from the front. Let them be excited about Rome; about their lives. Let them feel proud about their future. Rome was modern, and Rome was exciting! There were hardly any straw huts left in the city; these were truly modern times! And more importantly, Rome prevailed! Proudly, Spendius encouraged the horse with his voice.

“Go, little one,” he said in a soft tone. He raised the reins with both hands, and just like that — they rode down into Rome.

Down the Long Road, a sharp turn on Vicus Triumphalis, only to turn left again by the old tree — where people used to get flogged by lictors until consul Publicola put an end to that, too. From there, straight on to Papirius’s home.

Around here, people were still sleeping. Hooves splashing in puddles were the only sound to be had.

Once he reached the home of the Pontifex, he dismounted in one single move. A slave opened the front gate of the property, and told the officer to enter. Inside, a small oil lamp flickered in the hallway. Old Papirius greeted the soldier and Spendius was in awe. The Pontifex was ninety-five, and he walked without anyone’s aid.

“What way did you take to here, officer?” asked Papirius.

“Vicus Longus, sir,” Spendius said. “Left by the flogging tree, after that.”

“The shortest path. Very good!”

The Pontifex took the scroll, turned on his heel, and opened the seal. He read fast and turned back to the officer.

“How long before you can be back at the lake?”

“Two hours, with a fresh horse,” Spendius said.

“Very well,” old Papirius said. “Wait here. I shall write an answer quickly.”

As the old priest was going to turn, people walking and speaking — all excited, passed along the street.

“Something strange appears to have happened, last night. It seems gods do come down to us mortals, at times,” Papirius said, smiling and raising his overgrown eyebrows.

Spendius smiled back politely. News of Castor and Pollux were quickly spreading.

Seeing the young officer didn’t move, Papirius pointed at a small wooden stool. “Now, sit and wait!”

“Sir? I also carry this from the general,” said Spendius, producing the square letter with the blue ribbon. “The generals’ home is not far from here. Could I deliver it, in the meantime?”

Papirius didn’t seem to understand at first, but when his slave explained that the messenger had another message for Postumius’s wife, Papirius was all apologetic.

“Of course. Of course. Be off with you, and hurry. Your general needs my message before the sun reaches noon.”

While Spendius rushed to deliver the second remittance to Postumius’s wife, Papirius turned to his study, and sat on an armchair, adorned with intricate patterns made by some Etruscan artisan. He opened the message and read it again. He asked for a papyrus, and wrote one word on it. He rolled the paper up, and his slave brought candle and wax. After the message was properly sealed, he waited.

After Spendius retrieved it, he went to his ‘one-eyed chair’ as he called it. Few owned indoor toilets in Rome a the time, and he loved to sit there and think. And forget about his own bowel movements.

It was a good thing, that the gods had kept him alive for so many years. All too often he questioned the gods. Why was he alive? Today, he received his answer. To save Rome, when the time was right.

Postumius won, but more than that — Postumius bumped into the treasury chests of Octavius Mamilius, when the Romans invaded the camp, after the fight. And that was a huge deal. So big, that it wasn’t wise to keep too many people in the loop about the discovery. Postumius did right, by not giving it to the people. Common people just wouldn’t know what to do with so much, at once!

Only three soldiers saw the treasure chests with their own eyes, before Postumius was informed. Conveniently, all three fell in combat, shortly thereafter. The secret was safe.

Anyone else would be bringing ruin to Rome, if such opportunity presented itself. He knew a lot about human nature, and the weakness humans display, when dealing with money or gold.

That is why he wrote that one word, answering Postumius’s questions.

The word read:

SATVRN

#

“Marcus!”

“Mother?” he asked, irritated. Since his return, he didn’t have a minute to himself.

“Your uncle is here.”

Marcus rose from his bed, and walked to the door. Lucius was outside, freshly shaved as always. He smiled, and both went into a hug.

“Ah, my boy! I see Postumius didn’t let you fatten up on the trail, like he promised!”

Marcus grinned as if understanding the joke. Lucius knew his nephew too well, to not to notice the grief, perhaps even fear. They went down the sidewalk that circled the hut, and once Lucius was sure his sister-in-law was out of earshot, he told the young man.

“Let’s go for a walk, you and me! Heh? A lot has happened since we last met.”

“Because you wandered off, uncle,” Marcus said. “What was it this time? A Lavinium girl?”

He tapped his uncle on a shoulder, like true comrades do. If only he could be so frank with father, what a relationship that would be! His friend Hostus did everything with his father, so why couldn’t he? Why was it his fate, to have been born different? In a different family? In a different type of family? Couldn’t he be, just like all his friends? With a Pater Familias who took care of the household, and went on adventures with his son, or his sons? Couldn’t father be like all other fathers? A father who wouldn’t ignore his wife, to the point where she was certain he was having an affair, even though he wasn’t?

“Lavinium?” Uncle Lucius yanked Marcus out of his thoughts. “You think I’d go for Lavinium girls? They stink of salt and marshes, by Venus!” They both laughed.

“I’ve been to Signia, Marcus,” Lucius said. “Not a new colony, to be honest. But there’s new people there, not bad!”

“Aha!” Marcus feigned interest. “So, what’s new there, that other colonies wouldn’t have?”

“Well… for once, those are not your average Aventine people. Publius chose well, when he sent people there.”

“Publius?” Marcus asked.

“Yes, Publius Servilius, my boy! A smart man, if you ask me. He’ll be consul next year, for sure! I could recommend you to him. He likes hardworking clients, and a patron like him is never bad news. But listen,” Lucius dismissed himself with a hand, “I wanted to ask you something of a different sort, Marcus. That is why I needed you out of the house…”

Marcus panicked. He was sure his uncle already knew. Besides, Lucius was walking them towards the Forum. What for? Wasn’t he there, just this morning, while he was with father?

“Ask away, uncle. However, I believe you know, I know, what you are about to ask me.”

Lucius stopped.

“In that case, be sincere, and say your answer!”

Marcus sighed deeply. For an instant, maybe — just maybe — he could say a lie, and swear by the gods that whoever witnessed it, was out of his mind, and what happened, actually never happened. But he knew better than lying to his uncle.

“I did it, uncle. I did it.”

“What about the oath?”

“I did that, too…”

Lucius sighed and turned. “Deep within me, I wished that part had not happened, Marcus.”

“I know,” Marcus said. “I wished the same!”

“Very well,” Lucius said, after a long silence. “An oath is an oath. Even if only a minor god heard you utter the words, it is not to be undone.”

“But uncle!”

“Nothing there, my boy! You know I love you as if you were my own son, but this is where we are at, now. Besides—” Lucius stopped himself.

— Besides, what?” Marcus panicked for the second time in less than ten minutes. What else was there?

“Besides, your father knew of the whole thing, even before I knew.”

Marcus was groaning. “By the gods! How is that possible?”

“Come on, boy! Your whole unit is spreading the word. People are betting which of the girls you’ll pick. Number one? Number two?”

“What? I don’t even know them.”

“Nobody knows them. People just know there is five sisters. And you have to pick one. Nephew, look at me, heh? When people bet, they bet on a number. Not on—”

“What have I gotten myself into?”

“Do not seek for a culprit of something you have done to yourself. And do not view this from the wrong side. What you don’t see is that you are becoming a hero, my boy. Whether you like it or not!”

“A hero?” Marcus gasped. “That’s not a hero; that’s a villain! A villain is what I am becoming!”

“No!” Lucius said, in a stern tone. “Junius Brutus was a villain before the monarchy fell, and he turned himself into a hero. Rome mourned him for a year…”

“Yeah, because he got himself killed,” Marcus said.

“Don’t you switch my words, boy! Regardless of the battle, he flipped a bad thing into a good thing. And you can do that, too!”

“I can’t! I am not a Junius. I am a plebeian who makes shields…”

“…and who managed to kill the biggest man the Latins produced, at the battle,” Lucius interrupted proudly.

“Marcus! You killed the giant in one single shot! People will never remember his name. They will only remember the words a-latin-giant. People love this stuff, boy. Listen! I’ve got of a story for you. A people called the Jews. They live north-east from where the Egyptians live. Thousands of years ago, they had a boy named David, a shepherd or something like that. Not a patrician, for sure! Well — I think they have no patricians and plebeians, the Jewish. But let me tell you, boy — this David killed a giant named Goliath, in a hand-to-hand combat, and the whole enemy army got spooked, and ran, and they — they — they made this boy David, their king. In your case, it just gets better, because you get to marry one of his daughters. Marcus, you need to step up! You need to get this through your head! People are already calling this fight, the Battle of Lake Regillus. Rome’s greatest fight, yet.”

Lucius gave a musical tone to his last sentence, as if something epic was in the making. “You are the hero of the Battle of Lake Regillus, but you need to go through with your oath! Don’t even think of quitting half-way through, heh?”

Marcus stared at Lucius. Words weren’t coming out of his mouth. For a moment, uncle Lucius had transformed into a mass speaker. A true demagog. A visionary preacher, as if shouting from the wooden crates at the Forum. Marcus stepped back, to not to lose his balance.

“Marcus!” A familiar voice made them both turn on their heels. “Marcus!”

It was Hostus, Marcus’s best friend. Behind him, his father — also named Hostus, tried to keep up with his son’s pace. And they both were smiling form one ear to the other.

Hostus gave Marcus a huge hug.

“We ran all the way from Veii, when we got the news!” Hostus said. “You are amazing, Marcus! The gods have smiled upon you, my friend!”

And next to them, uncle Lucius smiled, too, with his typical grin. The man had seen the world, and yet — he lost neither touch nor focus. Perhaps, that’s why young Marcus admired his uncle so much.

“By the gods, he would look so cool, in a patrician toga,” Marcus thought. “If only he didn’t drink so much.”

#

For two days, Marcia has been rolling in dreams of wolves and skulls, heat and cold spells taking turns on her body and making her fever sway up and down. Sweat mixed with the purulent yellowish goo emanating from her wounds, and earlier, the Etruscan healer-priest recommended to remove all non-vital tissue from around her neck, her back, and her thighs.

When Gaia, Marcia’s mother, asked how this removal was to be done, he raised his chin with assertion.

“By fire, Domina! On thin strips of burning metal,” he said.

Gaia first refused, but if Marcia was going to live, what else could be done? Doctors know better, she tried to calm herself down. The healer promised to return next morning, with the tools to save Marcia’s life. He also demanded five ases, as he had to buy iodine and balsams at the herb-maker’s market. Gaia gave him the coins.

Hallucinating at dangerous levels of unconsciousness, Marcia spoke words nobody understood, and for the entire night, her body ached, even through sleep. Her mouth had a rancid odor, and mother kept wetting her lips with a cloth. Chamomile tea, for Gaia didn’t know what else to offer.

Fuflunius, their head slave, stood behind her the entire night.

It was him who found Marcia the night of the battle, and it was him, who dragged her out of the ravine and brought her back to Tusculum, unconscious and trembling. He was in search of Marcia’s father, when he found her. He knew right away Marcia caught pneumonia. In Etruria, his homeland, they called it the illness of fire and ice. Few people made it through the next few days, and if they did, they would be either blessed or cursed by the gods, for the rest of their lives.

Early next morning, three of Marcia’s sisters, announced they were going out to the market, to buy incense sticks for goddess Angitia. For little sister, they said. And just like that, they were out the door. They lied. They didn’t want to see the suffering the Etruscan healer was about to bring upon Marcia. He was due to arrive any moment, now.

Fausta, the eldest of Marcia’s sisters, stayed to help mother. She was seventeen — close to eighteen, unengaged, and aware of her late age. Although she was by far the most beautiful of them all, there was a certain sadness in her; an undetectable spirit of defeat, as if her life was a wasted affair, even before its very own start.

Fausta wasn’t always like that. In fact, she was a child conceived and born in passionate love; so much love, she radiated it back through her vibrant eyes, during all of her childhood. Later, however, ever so slowly, her glow — that invisible aura, faded away, and all that remained was her undeniable beauty. Nobody could pinpoint the reason, or tell what triggered her loneliness. It just happened. All too often, Fausta was empty, dispirited, and misunderstood.

“Mother. I’ll go see the slaves in the kitchen. I’ll bring fresh tea for Marcia,” she said, kissing her mother’s forehead.

“Go, child,” mother said.

Gaia followed her daughter’s slow, long paces into the kitchen with her eyes.

“What a beautiful creature,” she said to herself. “Oh, Arminius, what have we done? Look at her! She is so beautiful, we always thought it would last all her life, and bridge all her obstacles.”

A single teardrop flowed up Gaia’s eyes, but she fought it down. Too many bad news, waiting to be dealt with, right now. Arminius would have to wait, no matter how much she loved him.

“I wish I knew what to do about her, except for finding her a good husband. Juno, help me! Let me find solace for her, can’t you see how lost she is?” Right away, she admonished herself in her mind. Of course Juno could see such things, how rude of her to even question the goddess! It is her who should be seeing after Juno!

“How long has it been since a proper sacrifice, Gaia? When was the last time you offered a pig, or even a scrawny goat for the goddess of love, homeliness, and fertility?”

She promised to herself, that was going to change. And she was going to do it, sooner rather than later! She yanked herself out of her thoughts, as Marcia convulsed in a loud cry, and blood spat out of her mouth. The girl’s chest arched up, as if a monster — lodged deep inside, was trying to escape the confines of her tiny rib cage.

“Sweet goddess Juno! What am I to do?” Gaia asked.

Fuflunius jumped to her aid, and held both of Marcia’s arms, as the girl’s heaving began to increase. Now, white paste began to flow from the corners of her mouth, and cold sweat shot up from her face. Fuflunius ran to check on the bandages on her ankles. They were supposed to keep her blood stream in check, but instead, they were dry, and baking hot.

“Domina! Cold water, and vinegar for the bandages, please!”

“Get the slaves!”

Gaia was at the top of her lungs and at the end of her wits. As a richly brought up patrician, she had no clue what to do. And so — instead of being of any help, all she did was to infuse more terror on those around her.

Fausta came running back into the cubiculum, a vessel of hot tea in her hands. She placed it next to her mother, and at the same time, pushed her away with a kick of her thigh. Gaia gladly obliged. It was better if she prayed and stood out of other people’s way. Slaves held Marcia onto the bed, but it was to no avail. The girl’s body was refusing to give in, and the pain was making Marcia scream. Sounds so gutural in nature, mother believed her mind was already crossing into the underworld.

Knocks on the door. Lars Culefius, the Etruscan physician was here.

“Mother! Get the door,” Fausta said.

“Yes! Oh Juno, yes!”

Three slaves were now trying to hold Marcia tight, and all three were being bathed in a strange whitish foam, as Marcia kept on convulsing, and spitting her lungs out. As she shook and jolted, her wounds, where thorns had punctured her skin that night, were all opening up. Ugly, purple tulips were shaping up around them. Her screams were now wails, louder than ever. One of the slaves lost her grip, and she flatly fell off the bed, pushed by the strength Marcia was being possessed with.

Led in by Gaia, Culefius stared at the scene. His demeanor changed so abruptly, that everyone in the room thought the healer was just about to give up.

“Oh gods! Can you save her?” asked Gaia. “Please!”

Culefius didn’t respond. In his mind, the girl on the bed was cursed by the gods.

He gazed down to his toolbox. Long, thin iron pincers stood out of the leather bag, with threatening claws on their ends.

The worst was yet to come.

===============

II

===============

When Lucius Tarquinius Superbus reached the heights of Campania, he looked disappointed. He had been here many times, before — before he was king of Rome.

“Cumae,” he said. “You foul snake’s nest!”

Tarquinius knew the father of the man who ruled Cumae, and he knew exactly what he was getting into, but there weren’t many other options left. He was ninety now — a round number, and he had outlived many a tyrant. He wasn’t going to lose sleep over the one, he was about to ask for shelter.

“Yes, my lord,” Portius, his security officer, said. “A snake’s nest.”

“With only one snake left in it,” Tarquinius said. He laughed at his own remark.

And so, as they marched down the steep hills, and towards the coast, the road zig-zagged many times before their eyes. They stopped several times along the road, as Portius needed to ensure the old king wasn’t running out of air, even though he was being carried by four strong Numidians.

Tarquinius rode a horse the day of the battle, but that was just for show. As soon as they were out of sight from the Romans, the ex-king switched to his spacious litter, on which a sedan chair was installed, and under which his treasure chest was encrusted. Fine nets made from the best reeds Egypt could offer, protected the monarch from mosquitoes, dust, and other flying irritations.

Behind him, another litter was carrying his son’s body, but on the second day, the old king changed his mind, and ordered that litter behind everyone else. It stank beyond belief, and he often asked himself why the Romans allowed the body to be retrieved.

“Ah, what a turbulent year it has been, so far. So many chances and close calls. So many almost. So many near-misses. And yet, the gods kept him alive, with a clear mind and an old, yet unimpaired body.”

He could remember the battle as if had happened last night. And kept digging for mistakes. His son-in-law was the weakest point, regardless where he placed him. In the end, Octavius Mamilius was put right in front of Aebutius, the Master of the Horse.

“Nobody escaped that man, may the gods curse him a thousand times over,” Tarquinius said to himself. “Yes, even when the Latins took Corbio — and slaughtered all the Romans in that garrison, which was such a gamble, Aebutius was the only one who showed up early, and gave them hell, a tooth for a tooth! Aebutius probably even pushed his own dictator into action, before the Volscians appeared, and that’s why they lost! By Vanth and by Vatika, what a chance missed!”

“How could we lose? We were two to one, on foot, and three to one, on horse! More than forty thousand enemies of Rome volunteered on that day, while the dictator could barely muster twenty-three thousand of his own men, and most of them were boys who never smelled blood from up close! We had a cavalry of three thousand men — thrice their amount! We encouraged our men…”

Yes. They encouraged. His own army, on the other hand, was never so lucky. He could still picture the dictator, riding in front of his men. Arousing them, calling the fight.

“Romans! There are three things I will take issue with you, today. First, there is the confidence you have in one another, which is the thing most needed by men who are going to conquer their foes. You do not need to begin today, to be firm friends and faithful allies to one another! Your country has long since prepared you for this. You have been brought up together, and you received the same education! You sacrifice to the same gods, upon the same altars; and together, you have both enjoyed many good things, and gone through many evils!”

How true this was, old Tarquin had to admit. None of his soldiers knew each other the same way the Romans did. Perhaps, this did him in, in the end. What a close call!

Next, the dictator spoke of honor and freedom.

“Secondly, the struggle, in which your highest interests are at stake, is common to you all alike. For if you fall into the enemy’s power, it will not mean that some of you will be spared, while others suffer the worst of fates. No! All of you — all of you, will have lost your proud position and your liberty. You will no longer have the enjoyment of your wives, your children, and your property. And those of you who are at the head of the commonwealth, and direct the public affairs, you will die the most miserable death. Remember, Romans — your enemies, though they have received no injury at your hands, they have heaped many outrages of every sort from your fathers and forefathers! What do you expect them to do, if they now conquer you by arms? Resentful as they are, because you drove them from their cities. You deprived them of their properties. And you do not permit them, even to set foot upon the land of their fathers. How would you feel?”

Postumius surpassed him, at his own game. Scare a soldier hard enough, and he will see no danger, where danger abounds. What a missed chance!

Lastly, the dictator spoke of fear and courage.

“And finally, of the advantages I have mentioned to you! The enemy has not proved to be so formidable as we once thought. For, with the exception of the support by the people of Antium, we see no other allies present here, do we? We were expecting that all the Volscians, and many of the Sabines and Hernicans would come to them as allies, and we were conjuring up in our minds, a thousand other vain fears. But all these things, it appears, were only dreams of the Latins. I say — they are empty promises and futile hopes. And you can see it here! Some of their own allies have failed to send aid they promised. Others, instead of assisting them, kept delaying their promise! And those who are right now, engaged in making good on their promises, they will arrive too late for the battle, and they will be of no further use, after today!”

“My lord,” Portius said. “We are here!”

“We’ve arrived?”

Old Tarquinius sat straight up in his litter and opened the curtain. In front of his royal guard, the famous Celeres, a line of dignitaries was blocking the road. Behind them, the gates of the walled city.

“Our lord, Aristodemos the Great, son of Aristocrates, provider of Cumae, heir of Aricia, and protector of children, welcomes you, and will receive you now!”

The king’s guard didn’t quite know what to make of it, for the line wasn’t moving, and the dignitaries kept their heads down, but nobody was saying a word.

“Great,” said old Tarquin. “So, he will receive me! Fantastic! Make way!”

One of the dignitaries stepped forward and spoke.

“Aristodemos the Great will only receive you, my great lord and ally. Your—” he turned his face towards  the Celeres, “… your army is to stay outside the walls.”

Making sure he didn’t seem weak — or mistrusting, king Tarquin entered the city, with only ten men as his personal guard, four carriers, and three ministers. And — of course — Portius, his right hand man. Just in case, Portius carried a small amphorae of venom on his person.

They were escorted along a colonnade of some 200 young men, welcoming them in the bright Mediterranean sun, between rows of acacia trees, Greek hyacinths, and Libyan palms with long fronds.

All the young men wore light-colored dresses, garlands, brass bracelets, and necklaces made of lapis lazuli. Their hair was long, but they were hairless below their necks. To the surprise of many, but not to old Tarquin, they behaved and acted like girls. They smiled at the men.

Aristodemos smiled, too.

Also known as ‘the effeminate,’ Aristodemos of Cumae was watching from the balconies of the city’s impregnable citadel.

#

“By Hera, why don’t they simply close the gates?” asked Tarquinia, daughter of ex-king Tarquin.

No response.

“I can’t watch thousands upon thousands of the worst class of humans, flooding into our city! This will be a plague, by tomorrow!”

The officer in charge — a tall and clumsy Sabine, simply stared down. After a minute, he repeated his explanation.

“Domina. Both gates were forced open last night, and we don’t have the manpower to fix them. About the Alban gate, I have ordered sentries to watch it.”

As if she didn’t hear his words — or didn’t care, she asked again the same question. The officer, dumbfounded, simply kept quiet, confident this couldn’t get a lot worse. Yes, she was the wife of Octavius Mamilius, and yes, they were still searching for her husband — or his corpse, but, what else could she do, aside from screaming, throwing insults, and shaking her jewel-laden arms?

He was wrong.

“If you don’t fix this gate personally now, by Artemis, I will have you flogged — No! — I will flog you myself, and I shall let my wolves onto you, you god-forgotten, ill-witted weakling,” she screamed.

Tarquinia loved to lace her insults with Greek deities. She reasoned they were farther away, and the consequences, or the effects, would take longer to materialize.

“Yes, Domina,” the officer said, glad to have an excuse to get out of her sight.

A centurion walked up to her, and asked with a solemn voice. “Domina? We have found your husband’s remains. Priests are on their way. You are to escort us to the palace, immediately!”

The two soldiers behind him, clasped their swords in a ritual move, and a signifer carrying the standard of Tusculum’s forces, lifted the pole up another notch. Tarquinia stared at the centurion, as if she just lost all the air left in her lungs. She followed without a single word.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, sisters Arminia, Cornelia, and Tacia, were running home. Their visit to the market was anything but what they had wished for.

Peddlers were asking exorbitant prices for their merchandise. When they first asked if they heard the price right, the salesman threw an obscenity at them; while all they wanted, was to buy something for goddess Angitia. In shock, they went to the next stall, but the woman there was packing her stuff.

“Leave while you can, young ladies,” she said. “The ill and the ill-disposed are arriving!”

The market was being flooded by warriors, from the battlefield. They were coming in pairs, in gangs, and in carts, if unable to walk.

“Hurry,” said Arminia, the second eldest of the five. “We don’t want to hang around here!”

They rushed through the marketplace, and tried to walk up the ‘grand stairs’ to the upper part of the city, only to see vagrants were lying there, and a fight broke out nearby. A Volscian who was calling himself a surgeon was demanding money from two other men, while a third man lay on the ground, bleeding from his ears.

“Cornelia! Do you seriously need to see what’s going to happen there?” Arminia said. Cornelia rolled her eyes, but followed suit.

Turning around, the girls ran through the backstreets of the patrician section of the city, scared to death. What had become of Tusculum? Was this the end of the city?

They stopped in their tracks. A Roman patrol was crossing the road, coming their way. Still as plants, they stared and waited, but the patrol wasn’t paying them any attention. Sensing no danger, they sped up, towards home.

The gate to the front garden was locked. Since nobody came to open it, the girls jumped over the wall. What happened to the garden slave, Arminia asked herself? They cut their hands, legs, and dresses on the pottery shards cemented along the ridge.

“Walls should keep intruders outside, not hurt the girls living inside,” Cornelia said.

To their surprise, there was nobody in the atrium. No mom. No slaves. They walked into Marcia’s cubiculum — she wasn’t there.

Tacia, the smallest, began to whimper, pointing at the far end window. The colorful Etruscan glass was broken. Shards were on the floor, many colorful pieces. Some other pieces — sharp as daggers, were still stuck in the frame, but something wasn’t right.

“Shhh,” Arminia said. “Don’t make a sound! But I noticed something — our furniture is gone!”

Cornelia ran into Arminia’s arms, and Tacia joined them both, squeezing herself in the middle. They huddled and squatted, looking around. Going to the market was a bad idea.

“Shhhh. Down here,” said Fuflunius.

The three girls turned in a single shriek. The slave peeked through the cellar door. He waved a hand, and they ran to the door. The went down the stairs, into the basement. A hallway connected two underground rooms, and they ran into the last one. Inside, mother and Fausta sat on the floor. The girls broke down in a wail. Hugging them, mother said to keep quiet. Fuflunius was laying out deer hides on the floor; the girls would need them. Little Tacia was unconsolable. They listened to mother’s story. 

“Right after you girls left, the healer showed up. He found Marcia is such a state he refused to even touch her. He said the very maggots of the underworld would come out of her body.”

“Ewwwww,” Tacia said, “disgusting!”

“Is Marcia in the other room?” Arminia asked.

“Yes,” mother said, with a finger over her lips.

“Can we go see her?” she asked.

Mother said yes, but she also said it would be wiser for the girls, to first listen to the rest of what happened.

“But who is watching her, right now?”

“Nobody, darling. Marcia is alright now, and should something happen, we’ll know. Juno will help!”

In a strange way, Fausta and Arminia found mother was calm, considering the calamity. It was as if she wasn’t the same person from when the girls left to the city. Cornelia wanted to eat, and Fuflunius immediately brought a tray with cuts of ham, cheeses, olives, sliced vegetables and fruits, and two loaves of bread. He brought milk, too, and he reminded everyone there would be no milk in two days, unless someone would go to the market, and buy some.

“Nooooo way! We are not going out,” the girls said. They shook their heads in perfect sync, and just remembering the scare they went through, made them all squishy about leaving the cellar.

They told mother what happened, and it only confirmed, what Fuflunius suspected. It was happening in the whole region. Society was literally breaking down.

A vacuum in a bottle, Fuflunius called it.

“You can have either air or water in a bottle, or something solid,” he said. “But if you empty the bottle, and if you suck out the very air, a thing called ether stays inside.”

Ether.” Fuflunius repeated the word, for the girls to learn.

“Now, this ether is invisible — just like air. But, unlike air, you cannot breathe ether. It would kill you in an instant!”

Little Tacia gulped a deep breath, and Fausta grabbed her hand.

“And until somebody doesn’t come, and replace the ether with some other substance — water, air, or some solid, there will be no natural order, inside the bottle.”

The girls paid attention to Fuflunius’s silly explanation with wide open mouths and minds.

“And right now, we are inside the bottle,” he said. Big smile.

“Can you get us out of the bottle?” Tacia asked.

“It’s a metaphor, you butterfly,” Cornelia said. “The slave was putting it in children terms.”

“A parable, actually,” Fuflunius said. His remark meant respect to Cornelia. She knew a lot. She learned even more in the ten years since he was in their household. But to Cornelia, Fuflunius was being impertinent, even though she knew he was right.

“Yeah, whatever. Tacia being a butterfly is a metaphor!”

Fuflunius smiled again. He said, soon, either the Romans or the Latins would come, and help everybody out of the bottle. And they would put those bad guys back inside the bottle, where they belonged.

Gaia was pleased that Fuflunius stayed. She was thankful. She told the girls, as soon as the whole thing began, their slaves ran away, and Culefius the physician was still there, even encouraging the slaves to run. He was threatening with taking Marcia to the temple, and burning her on the altar of Vatika, as a sacrifice. Only when two stragglers appeared at the door, did Culefius leave, because one of the men insisted he take care of one of his battle-wounds. Yes, that made him leave quickly, Mother recalled. In the meantime, Fuflunius dragged Marcia underground, and later he told mistress to run down, and lock the door. Anything that wasn’t bolted to the ground or built upon the ground, people would come in, and take it away. Thankfully, as if by a miracle, Marcia calmed down — all on her own, and she didn’t wake up since.

“Looking back now,” mother said, “Culefius would have killed our little Marcia. I am sure. He even threw the coins I gave him the day before, back at me. He said, no gods would accept cursed money.”

Her promise to Juno came to mind, for Juno also protected women — Roman women. It suited Gaia well, for she was born in Rome. She spoke to Fuflunius about her plan to offer a sacrifice to Juno. It would require a trip to Rome, and he was to arrange it. The slave listened to every detail, as Gaia was preparing the trip in her mind. They would go in a month or so, after Marcia recovered.

In his own mind, Fuflunius was feeling good. Yes, Juno was the goddess to pray to. She wasn’t a monster, like that horrible half-snake, half-woman, named Angitia. She was a true divinity. Sure, she may have been yanked out form the Greek pantheon, but ultimately she was given to Rome by the Etruscans.

“As soon as this is over, girls,” Gaia said, “we are going to the temple of Juno in Rome, and we are going to sacrifice a big pig.”

The girls clapped in cheer, and Marcia coughed.

Fuflunius ran first, with Gaia right behind. The girls hesitated, and stayed at the door, between the two rooms. The eerie darkness above, in their own house, gave them fear.

“Girls. You can come in, and see your sister,” mother said.

When they walked in, Fuflunius had a lamp placed next to Marcia’s hay cot, so that her four sisters could see her a little better. Slowly, as if stepping into a temple, the four sisters walked in. Cornelia hesitated the most, and in the end, she stayed by the door.

Fausta, who spent the whole day at home, caught Cornelia’s lack of compassion. She made a note in her mind.

Gaia caught Fausta’s eyebrows. She knew exactly, what was going on. Ah, Cornelia! Yes, the sister in the middle was the smartest of them, and there was hardly anyone as good as her in debates, reasoning, or winning an argument. But she was also the coldest of all, deep in her heart. Give her a reason to fight — a trophy — anything, and Cornelia could move mountains, Gaia said to herself. But if you waited for her to do something for a fellow human being, out of the kindness of her own heart, you might wait for a long, long time!

And still, Gaia didn’t find Cornelia evil or repugnant. She didn’t judge her daughter. Far from that. Cornelia was vitality, adventure, and thrill. And she was certainly easygoing, fun, and creative. She was just different. Where Fausta was water, Cornelia was fire. And Marcia? Her own thought surprised her. Well — Marcia was probably ether.

“How strange. Five daughters — fruit of the same love. Yet so different,” she said. “And how remarkable, that only one of them went to the battlefield, to find father.”

Just this morning, Fuflunius told her, he was planning to go to the battlefield again, after the girls fell asleep. Perhaps he would have more luck this time, but in her mind, Gaia had no hopes of ever seeing her man again.

She told him to take Arminius’s staff, for protection. A simple, long staff, made of truffle oak. Fuflunius recognized the staff. Years ago, Arminius saved his life, with it.

A minute or so later, little Tacia came to Marcia’s bedside, and moved her hand as if to touch her face, but she stopped herself. Marcia’s skin color, a depthless hue of light blue, seemed to scare Tacia.

“You can touch her,” her mother said. “I’m sure she will be happy.”

“Mommy,” Tacia asked. “Why is her skin so flat?

“Because she went through a lot, my love.”

“Is she dead?” Tacia asked.

#

Lucius jumped onto the cart, as if he was in his mid-twenties, and not forty-five. Old Marcus and Oxos nodded good morning.

Lucius checked out the drinks available, and grabbed a skin of posca — a mix of low-quality wine, water and vinegar, good for keeping germs out of one’s body.

“You’re starting early,” said Marcus. “You might be drunk by the time we get there.”

“Don’t worry, brother,” Lucius said, “It’s good for my health.”

Old Marcus refused to reply to that.

Hours later, they camped, cooked some barley and lentils, and had some buccellatumrock-hard bread that could last for years, for it was flat like a coin, and had neither yeast nor fat.

By early afternoon, they reached the battlefield. The stench of dead flesh was there, an hour before. Two big columns of smoke rose from two different ends of the plain. Burning human flesh, in two huge common graves for nameless fighters. The three men hoped, the man they were looking for, wasn’t in one of the holes.

They jumped out, and Oxos took a pick-axe, scanning the field. “A third of the bodies from a few nights ago.”

The mental assault of rotting human meat was hard to ignore. Old Marcus grabbed posca, too, trying to numb his senses. Most of the corpses were obviously ransacked by scavengers and thieves, some more than once. No gold, or anything of value would be found by now. Only the most useless stuff remained, and some bodies were missing teeth and eyes. Blue eyes were good for chasing away spirits, some said, so they were pried out from their heads, leaving empty sockets staring nowhere. Romans loved blue eyes.

“So. Where exactly do you think, my son would have been,” old Marcus asked. “There?”

Lucius studied the plain. Aebutius Elva had the center of Rome’s forces, that night. He therefore faced the strongest part of the Latins — plus, all the renegades that left Rome, ten years or ten days before. He discarded the slopes of the Alban hills, and the edges of the lake. Those were not center.

The day before, Lucius spoke with Aulus Sempronius, the man whose job it was, to keep Rome safe, while the rest went to battle. Sempronius told him, when the center of the Latines was at its strongest — right before the Dioscuri descended from the heavens, that’s when Marcus was sent to the front. Lucius paced forward, counting steps from where he was told the infantry was standing. Eighty steps. That led them over the next hill. That’s where Marcus should have met the Latin giant.

“He should be here, Marcus. No more than fifty yards around here. Believe me.”

“Well — let’s start digging,” said old Marcus. “What else is there to do?”

As the three men began to search, old Marcus was pondering. No matter from which point he looked at it, they were doing the right thing. For the hundredth time, old Marcus put all the pieces together in his head, and there was no other way. They just had to find the man Marcus killed, and give him a proper burial. If they did, and if — a big if — Marcus didn’t follow through with his oath — they were at least protected from the gods, because they buried the warrior whom his son swore to help. The wrath would be on Marcus alone! But if Marcus did follow through with his oath, the honor of their action now, was double its worth! In such case, Marcus’s wife would always know where her father’s bones lay, and the gods would be pleased and appeased.

Of course, there was the other option. If they did not find him, they had two choices. Lie about it, and pretend they did find the man’s body, or speak the truth, and prepare for the worst. And in both cases, there were two ramifications. Would Marcus follow or not — his promise? If yes, the god’s wrath would not come down on his son, but on himself, and his brother, and perhaps even on Oxos, the Greek. For it is them, who did not find the man’s body, and lied about it. But if they said the truth — perhaps the man is already inside one of those smoldering holes, well, in that case, nobody was offending the gods. They tried to find him. They couldn’t. Marcus followed through. Everyone is happy. Except, perhaps, the family of the bride. But, that was already out of his hands.

So, yes — they had to do their utmost best, and find the warrior whom young Marcus killed, in one single stroke of his daggers.

The only thing he, himself, could do, was to make sure Marcus went to Tusculum, and he took one of those five sisters, and made her his wife! Like it or not. And, by Dis and Orcus, he swore to himself, he was going to kick his boy’s manhood away, if he didn’t do so.

He already lost the chance to be a proper Pater Familias; he wasn’t going to be ashamed in front of everyone, just because his son didn’t go through with an oath. By tradition, he would seek out his son’s wife, and negotiate the best deal out of it, for the best of the family. It’s how it’s been done, since he had memory. His son robbed him of that privilege, and by Orcus, he wasn’t going to be robbed of anything else, as far as his son was concerned!

“Five, heh?”

Lucius yanked Marcus out of his sudden rage, with the question…

“Five what?” old Marcus asked.

“I mean… how can a man be so blessed — or so cursed — and have five daughters?”

“Ah… that!” said old Marcus. “Yes, strange. It seems, the gods had their hand in that, too.”

“Perhaps the man tried, and kept trying, praying for a son?”

“Five times? Nonsense.”

Oxos clapped from a distance, and they went to see what he found. The slave pointed at a wide patch around himself, where many objects were strewn around. Pieces of sandals. Roman basket ropes. Broken sword handles. A belt — without its buckle, obviously stolen. Hundreds of small hobnails. Boss lines from broken shields, sticking in the ground. But, they were all Roman. If this was the place where Marcus faced the Latins, there should be objects from both sides. Maybe this was not the right place, after all.

Old Marcus reasoned, if the battle was going in favor of the Latins at that moment, the Romans would have been pushed back. Which meant they were too far ahead. How far exactly? They didn’t know. Also, if Tarquin’s cavalry was as effective as they said, Marcus didn’t face the Latins here, but much further east.

They all walked east, and there is was. Right away, they found blue pieces of cloth. Orange buttons. Green scarfs. Sandals like the ones, actors used in Rome. There were sword shards, made of alloys Romans did not use. This was the place!

Marcus went down to his knees, above a corpse. It was him. A long, muscular body, six or seven feet in length. Open eyes, gaping to the skies. A single slit on the neck confirmed what young Marcus spoke of, the night before.

“Ah, my son,” old Marcus said out loud. “For him you cried? Or for yourself?”

Yes. He couldn’t get the sight out of his mind. His son crying, when he forced him to speak. To speak in details.

Last night, old Marcus summoned his wife, and he had Marcus say the entire story again. They already had the big picture, but father wanted the small pieces, now. By the time Marcus reached the part where he was slicing the warrior’s neck, he was a broken youth. Sabina kept quiet, but in her heart she hated her man, for doing this to their son.

“Where was your other hand, when you did it?” asked old Marcus.

The boy tried to recreate the scene in his mind, and played with his hands in the air.

“On his face, I think. Or his forehead. I don’t remember, father.”

“What happened next?”

“Father,” Marcus pleaded, “I already told you!”

“ay it again!”

Fresh tears ebbed to his face. He said he was being egged on by other legionaries; they were cheering him on. That’s when the giant grabbed his neck, cutting his air flow.

“He-he … said … I have five daughters.”

“What else”

Marcus told him the rest. The giant asked him if he had a wife, to which Marcus said no. By now, Marcus was running out of air. Finally, the giant put him to swear upon Bellona, he would protect his family, and take a wife from amongst his daughters. After the boy swore to do so, the giant let his hand go, and told him to finish the job.

“He told you to finish the job? He used those words?”

“Yes, father. He told me to take the thing from his neck, and — do one single cut. He— he— he waited. He just waited. He was watching the sky.”

Marcus was done. Out of air, out of tears, and out of any honor left in himself. He just sat there and kept his gazing down. The giant’s amulet, he gave it to father. He hated himself, his father, that turquoise  amulet, the battle, his friends egging him on, and his whole stupid life.

“He was watching the sky,” old Marcus said, repeating his son’s words, as if conjuring the past into present.

Still kneeling beside the corpse, Old Marcus could see it clearly; it made perfect sense. The giants’s eyes were wide open, towards the gods in heavens.

“So, this was the last thing you saw, when my boy slashed your throat,” he said. “By the horns of Orcus…”

Seeing how deep in his thoughts his brother was, Lucius knelt down, too. He said nothing. For a minute, one of the nearby holes increased in intensity. Embers danced in the air. Probably, somebody just threw a loved one into the pit.

Old Marcus began to rub the dirt off the giant’s neck. He spit on his thumb, and kept rubbing around the cut. He was searching for a mark. The necklace. A last, rock-solid proof, to make sure as the morning, this man was indeed the father of his soon-to-be daughter-in-law. He kept rubbing. Dirt. Dry blood. Swelter. And there it was. A long leather mark, round and round. A little lower, the amulet left a clear tan mark, like when a man wears a ring for years.

His doubts were gone.

Seeing that Oxos was bringing the cart, old Marcus hurried up. He cut a piece of fabric from his own cloak, and covered the man’s eyes. Next, he grabbed a coin from his pouch, and forced it into the man’s mouth, under the tongue.

He asked, “say… do you miss the time when kings ruled the earth?”

He checked him out. Dirty blonde hair. Arms like logs.

“I’m sure you do. Simple people like you and me — we don’t go well with consuls like Postumius. Or even Appius Claudius, although he reminds me of a king.”

He changed the topic.

“I am sure, your daughter — whichever my son gets to pick, will be a great fit! You know that, right? And I swear to you, too, I’ll make my boy go through with it. You cost me too much, already!”

The cart was there.

“I don’t know your name…”

And right away, his anger returned. The recklessness of his son, his only son. How could he agree to such a deal, such an extortion? At times, the dying got more out of this whole matter, than Marcus — the one who survived.

By Dis and Orcus, he cursed. How could his son be so weak? Accept an oath, form a dying foe? Just because the man was dying, in front of him? Just because he was too slow, to react, and avoid his son’s daggers? For a moment, he wanted to beat his son. It was a good thing, he told him to stay home.

By when they began their ride home, it was long dark. They would go to a forest he was familiar with, three miles north of Rome, and across the river. There, they would give a proper burial to the man. Some day, his son would know the place. When he becomes a real man — if that ever happens!

And just as they were leaving the confines of the battlefield, an Etruscan man was entering the area. He was carrying a long wooden staff, for obvious protection.

It was made of dark truffle oak.

#

“Can you understand my words?” Marcus asked the man, prostrated over the big workshop table.

After opening his eyes, the man nodded, obviously still in great pain. “I can. You are master’s son. He is a slave, Cutu by name. I am in your father’s workshop, by the mercy of Mars. I am laying on the place where you stretch leather to make scutum, clipeus, and parma.”

Marcus recognized his Roman accent.

“Say your tribe.”

Hesitating for an instant, the man pointed at a round shield, hanging from the wall, in front of them.

“This is my name, master,” he said. “Otacilius. Numerius Otacilius, at your service.”

The shield bore a wolf in front of a mountainous backdrop. A Greek letter Omicron was painted above the tip of the mountains. It was an order, and the owner had not yet come to pick it up.

“You have come from Samnia,” Marcus asked.

The family name Otacilius were residents of the Samnite mountains, far to the east, and some migrated to Rome, in the time of the kings.

“Your knowledge is broad, master,” Numerius said. “Indeed, my forefathers arrived form the mountains, long before myself. It was during the time of the fifth king of Rome.”

Cutu, who sat next to the man the entire time, spoke.

“Master. Numerius on floor? Many scutum orders.”

Cutu was anxious to continue working, and the injured man being on the stretching table, impeded that.

“Didn’t my father forbid it?” asked Marcus.

“I can certainly sit up, and lay on the ground,” Numerius said. “My shoulder will be fine.”

“Not until my father says so,” Marcus said. “He would be livid, should something happened to you!”

“I am delaying your business, by laying here,” Numerius said.

“We can still make clipeus,” Marcus said. “Those need no stretching, and barely any glue.”

Cutu didn’t like making clipeus, the small, round shields for families to ornate their homes. They came with drawings of emblems. Sometimes godlike figures, and sometimes simple pictures, like a fig tree or a dolphin.

“I will be back in the evening, and you are under orders — from my father, to remain where you are.”

“Aye, by Mars. Is your father around?”

“He went to the …”

He interrupted himself. This exile didn’t need that kind of information.

Father brought the man here, and he was obviously hiding him. Marcus couldn’t guess why. Perhaps he was part of father’s clandestine activities, or perhaps he was an old acquaintance. Either way, Marcus didn’t care. And it wasn’t this man’s business, what ‘master’ was up to, either.

“He went on business,” Marcus said.

As long as dad didn’t put him to deal with Numerius personally, he would avoid him. He would go and see Hostus. Yes, a day with his friend, while father and uncle spent their day, digging for a giant. The one he killed on that cursed day.

And with that, he left Cutu and Numerius in the workshop, and headed for the Aventine.

In part, he was glad, father forbade him to go to the battlefield.

#

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus stood in front of the sarcophagus of his slain son, Titus.

It was a hot day in Cumae, and Aristodemos was amused to see the ninety-year old man having to go through the elaborate funeral procedures, he himself designed, and even choreographed.

“It will be an honor for me to partake in the memories of my friend’s noble son, such valiant warrior for peace and stability,” Aristodemos proudly announced, the evening the king arrived.

Tarquin couldn’t refuse the offer, except for asking the body wouldn’t stay unburied for long. But since Aristodemos finished the preparations for the ceremony in less than a day, old Tarquin was left with no choice. His son, his last surviving son, would be buried in a white, square mausoleum, at the feet of Cumae’s highest and hottest spot. Clouds in the east, high above the Apennines, were announcing, a dry spell might soon be over. The wide, pinkish tiles around the mausoleum absorbed all the sunlight, and made the place even drier and harder to endure.

And so, while Tarquin sat through the prepared ritual, which he hated, in honor of a son he hated, he had nothing else but to reflect on his life. Why is it that old men find more time to think about the past? He was still, what many would call a busy man, and yet, more often than not, he found himself immersed in the past.

In his own past.

His life would soon end. Perhaps three days ago, when he first arrived at Cumae, he harbored hopes of a new opportunity — a new idea, in his quest for the throne of Rome. Perhaps the greed of the tyrant would allow for a plan to recover Rome. But, whom was he kidding, at his age? Others — younger, smarter, more tyrannical and less scrupulous than himself, were beating him at his own game, everywhere he went. A month ago, Aebutius surprised him in Corbio, with his actions. Even Octavius Mamilius, his own son-in-law — may he rot in the underworld, outdid him a month ago, when he bribed cities and villages all over Latium, all for one single cause which ultimately failed. Next, a week ago, Postumius outdid him in everything he considered himself good at. And now, not even three days ago, Aristodemos, the aging gay king of Cumae, bested him again. Three ministers, and ten men, that’s all he was allowed to have with himself! What a disgrace!

It truly was the last nail on the coffin of that idea. He could still hurt Rome, but he would never rule Rome again. And Rome would never have a king again.

The time to let go was just about right. Dying didn’t bother him, any more than seeing his son put in an ungodly, shiny box, in the middle of a hot, dry square, that didn’t shine at all, in the city that had the most days of sunshine, in all of Italy.

“Portius,” he said, as soon as the ritual was over, “take me to my quarters. I feel… tired.”

“Of course, Dominus,” Portius said.

Later that evening, a welcoming gala ensued. It was the official gala of ‘friendship amongst nations,’ as it was proclaimed, and dignitaries were invited from all over the land.

Aristodemos made arrangements for the ceremony to take place in one of the best spots in his city — the citadel itself. By presenting an opportunity to visit the inner heart of his renowned fortress, Aristodemos made sure none of the guests would miss such a chance.

He had balustrades and stairwells set up with flowers and vines, intertwining rare sword ferns with lilies from Cannae, which adapted so well to the climate of Campania. Exquisite pots held lavenders, thymes, and shrubby blindweeds, and they were intercalated with beautiful displays of dahlias from Tarentum, and croscomias, brought all the way form Nubia. The typical pinkish, gloss-less tiles on the main square made the evening gathering all the more vibrant, as they diffused the light emanating from scented oil lamps, causing shadows to blur and to transluce.

Countless tables and reclining armchairs with embroidered cushions were set on the square, and stars were the ceiling. Sycamores and fig trees surrounded the plaza, and vines grew up in the branches of pines.

Smooth slave-boys wearing breast bands and antelope earrings were bringing food onto the tables. Amber plates were loaded with delicacies of the land, as well as from all over the known world. Wine was brought in giant crateras, and loaves of various breads were set in front of all guests. In the middle, plates with roasted goats and oxen, pheasants and boars, filled the space. Deep-fried grasshoppers were sprinkled over dishes of shellfish, and anise-scented dormice and preserved pig ears were offered in bowls. Pots of wheaten porridge were brought out on extra tables, and those were put on the sides of each cluster of guests.

Dancing boys were clasping their hands, and undulating their thin, tan-lined bodies, to the rhythm of drums. Another group offered biscuits to guests as they arrived, and the youngest of all made sure cups were kept full throughout the night. A third group of servants, clad in short skirts, stood by with towels and bowls of perfumed water — rose petals floating in them. They eagerly washed off the grease and sauces of the guest’s fingers and hands, after which they caressed the men’s hands dry with warm, bluish towels.

“You have arrived, your majesty,” Aristodemos said, as he spotted the old king, followed by his handful of ministers, “I hope everything will be according to your taste, majesty!”

“Thank you. Thank you,” old Tarquin said, already bemused by so much theatrics. The lavish display. He pointed at one of the tables, where a group of Volscian centurions had taken up seats.

“Ah yes, your majesty,” Aristodemos rushed to explain. “We have invited envoys form Lucania, Heraclea, Apulia, and many other places. And our own cultural neighbors.”

“Have any Latins arrived yet?” Tarquin asked.

“Ah, I am afraid, not yet, your majesty. But I am sure they wouldn’t want to miss a party of this magnitude.”

Irritated by having to pet the old man for too long, Aristodemos turned to one of his aides.

“Drullian. Why don’t you offer assistance to King Tarquinius of Rome, in selecting the perfect place for the evening? And send Florian to bring drinks! We can’t have dinner delays, can we? Rush, rush!”

“Of course, your highness,” the aide said, in a soft, feminine tone.

Tarquin was livid. “… Of Rome. He called me King Tarquinius of Rome! By Tinh! If this was Rome, or anywhere near Rome, you would be eating your own words, sautéed in pig testicle sauce, and you would be fed by your own disgusting half-males.”

Romans were quick to copy anything Greek — and much from the Etruscans, too. That’s understandable. Rome had no culture of its own. They were peasants, and shepherds. No wonder they absorbed everything form their natural neighbors. Etruscans and Greeks.

Greeks had no problems with older men enjoying the company of boys, even in public. In fact, going from being a boy — and pleasing an older man, to later becoming a man — and using a youth for his corporal needs, was considered to be part of the natural stages of a man’s growth, by some philosophers and thinkers of the age. Hence the notion — from boyhood to manhood. Still, deep in his guts, he hoped, this fondness for boys who, on top of that, dressed and acted like girls, would not become one of the things Romans would take up, as part of their own culture.

The other thing Tarquin feared was a thing the Capuans — and Campanians in general, called the gladiatorial fights. Yes, Etruscans had them too, to some degree, but he shuddered at the idea of slaves being armed — with real weapons. For a bloody show, for masses who called it a sport.

“I hope, Romans never develop a taste for that,” he said to himself as he was being seated by Drullian, and offered a drink by another one of those halflings.

“Your drink, majesty,” Florian said. He placed a golden cup on the low table in front of Tarquin, bending over the reclined seat, and offering full view of his smooth inner thighs, and his sandal-laced calves.

To Tarquin’s dismay, Florian was already receiving electric attention, from two of his own ministers. Tarquin could only guess where Florian was going to end up, that night. All with the approving nod of the tyrant of Cumae.

“It is time for me to die,” he thought. “The world is spinning out of sense.”

But not before he settled all the matters of importance. His inheritance, for one. He received news through his spies that all the treasuries of Mamilius had been discovered by the Romans, when they took over the Latin camp. By Tinh, how could his son-in-law be so stupid? How to get the gold back? Romans were surely moving it to Rome, by now. He guessed they would hide it in one of their safest places of all. The temple of Saturn.

There was also the matter of his daughter, who still lived in Tusculum. Her own son Lucius — recently married, still young and easy to persuade, was never close to his own father. He could easily turn and befriend Rome, if swayed the right way.

He also pondered about the matter of his personal possessions — also in Rome. His ship, hidden and half sunken in the marshes of Ostia, had not yet been discovered by the Romans, and it would offer an excellent way to transport, both the gold — if he could get his hands on it, as well as his personal effects. Ah, how sweet it would be if he could snatch the Sibylline books, as well! It would assure Rome’s doom, and give him pleasure, even beyond the walls of afterlife!

Lastly, he needed to deal with the conditions for his stay in the south of Italy. His army couldn’t winter in the open, outside the walls of the city. That was out of the question. He had contact with the survivors of the massacre that occurred in Cumae, a decade ago. They wanted revenge, and they wanted to see Aristodemos’s head on a spike. Many of them were murdered by the parents of all those half-men in the city, and that’s why they were exiled to the countryside. Strewn around, like seeds in the wind. But he, Tarquin, already had an idea on how to reunite them, and set a plan into motion.

And if all went well, this plan would spring into action, as soon as he got his gold back. Sweet revenge! He would probably watch his revenge play out, and take effect on Rome, from the other side of the world, long dead, but it would be worth the wait and the effort.

Sometimes, it seemed, he couldn’t wait to die.

But for all that, he needed the unwitting collaboration of his new best enemy. Aristodemos of Cumae.

#

Cavalry officer Quintus Spendius’s life depended on it.

As the oxen moved through the muddy fields of Latium, he raced up and down the convoy, more times than he could count. Overloaded and weighing down the beasts, the carts moved slowly through the night. Wheels squealed and cranked at every turn, and special laborers were put to walk next to them, constantly adding grease.

Every time a cart got stuck — be it a low in the road, or an oxen that just wanted a respite, Spendius rushed to the scene. Five times, he ordered oxen to be exchanged, and during each of the exchanges, he personally checked the yokes and the harnesses. Two hundred officers, sworn to secrecy, were ordered to walk by, should a cart break down, and its contents spill out. Additional troops were combing the outskirts, shooing vagrants and oblivious travelers away. Torches were forbidden, and so everything was done with the constant, added danger of a surprise attack. After all, everyone in Latium knew of the gold. Moving so much gold from lake Regillus to Rome was not an easy task. But nobody was to know, when and where the gold would be moved.

“Two hours to first light,” an officer said, as he approached Spendius on his horse.

“Don’t tell me what I know,” was the reply. Spendius was on edge, and he didn’t need distractions. Only essential communication, he clearly said, earlier on. He turned east, they were late indeed.

“Tell the drivers to increase speed, and add two oxen to the first column,” he ordered. The march became a grueling task.

But in the end, they made it into the city, while still in the dark, and as soon as they approached the doors of the temple of Saturn, a swarm of soldiers came swinging out of their hideout. It was the columns of centurions Caeliomontanus and Albinus, the two officers who were standing by last, by orders of dictator Aulus Postumius Albus.

And there he was — Postumius himself. Overlooking the convoy’s arrival. A single torch next to him, held by his right hand man, swung slightly in the moonless night.

When Spendius rode up the mound where Postumius watched, he saluted the general, and gave his report. Postumius was satisfied. Hundreds of soldiers were now moving the gold into the deep cellars of the temple. They were guided by a neat line of flickering torches, held by the priests to the god.

“Old Papirius was right all along,” Postumius thought. “Whoever was on the lookout for our gold, was fooled tonight. Just like the Volscians were fooled, on the morning after the battle.”

They arrived by dawn, and seeing the field in disarray, they tried to find out who was the winner, for it was obvious, the show was long over. Seeing that the Romans won, they tried to persuade Postumius, their presence was to support him; a lie Postumius didn’t buy.

Postumius gambled there, for even though the Roman forces were still in their camp, they were weakened to a degree where the Volscians could have forced their hand, had they insisted. In the end, the Volscians allowed their doubts to win over. Believing the Romans fully rested, fully armed, and waiting to sally, got the best of them.”

In his mind, the logic was simple, even if it seemed intricate at first. If I think that you think, the pebble is in my right hand, I have two options, he reasoned. One was the fool’s option, as he called it, and the other one — he called it the bluffer’s choice.

Fools would put the pebble in the left hand, for they thought, the opponent thought, the pebble to be in the right hand. But true players, they would put the pebble right where the opponent believed it to be, and bet on the opponent’s self-doubt. It was a bluff, and tonight, it worked with the convoy, too.

Two caravans were sent out from the battlefield, that night. Both with equal forces, equal weight, and equal number of oxen, greasers, troops, and supplies. But one had the gold; the other one had stones. The other difference was the route. A short one, and a long one. The night before, Postumius had summoned Spendius, and asked him which route would he take, if he had to.

“Always the short road, Sir.”

Postumius smiled. A good bluffer. He put Spendius in charge of the short route convoy, where the gold truly was.

Proudly, Postumius turned his horse around. Less than an hour to dawn. The triumph would begin on time. Well done, everyone!

And as he rode away, towards the field of Mars, he reasoned about the future of Rome. As a meticulous pragmatist, Postumius believed in the worth of soft power, underlined with a thick layer of purchasing power. Yes, purchasing power was essential for a nation to grow, and now, Rome had it!

“By Jupiter, Rome was now like Athens.” he said out loud.

Greek culture spread through the Mediterranean by soft power. Culture. Music. Art. Columns. Zeus an Hera. A history, kept for centuries. Even philosophy, which bored Postumius to death. They had the Olympic games. Mount Olympus. Democracy. So many things, the world copied from them, over and over. But this soft power would have been impossible if there wasn’t a hard, cold, layer of gold, reaffirming and holding that soft power alive.

Even children playing war on the streets of Rome, imitated Greek heroes like Achilles and Perseus in their plays. Postumius was sure, many more such Greeks heroes would follow. Their own kids, here in Rome, they were not playing Servius Tullus, or warlike Hostilius. No sir — they played Greeks!

Now, that’s soft power!

Rome would be able to begins spreading its wings, and create it own soft power, as well. Because, after all, you cannot bluff an opponent away, unless you have solid purchasing power under your feet.

Or in this case, under the temple of Saturn.

Postumius changed his mind. He wanted to see old Papirius first. The Field of Mars could wait another hour.

In his mind, there was one more issue, standing out.

#

Marcia woke up in the middle of the night. When she opened her eyes, she didn’t know where she was. She closed her lids, and began to chase glowing points under her eyelids. As a little girl, she used to call it ‘running with angels.’

She opened her eyes again. Shades of different blacks formed. The walls. The wooden planks of the ceiling. Why am I in the basement, she asked herself? With effort, she tried to turn. If she could catch a glimpse of the weapons lined up on the wall, it would confirm where she was. It was the place where father used to prepare for war. He would stay in the room for days on end, before going to war. Every time, Marcia was scared to death, when father disappeared in the basement.

“He is fighting for us, before he goes to fight for his commander,” mother used to say. “If he doesn’t invoke his god’s favor, how can he make it back?”

But Marcia couldn’t turn her neck, and a pang clubbed her whole body, like those sunken skulls on the battlefield. She exhaled, and closed her eyes. After that, she fell asleep again.

In the morning, when she woke up for the second time, her mother was sitting next to her cot. Mother’s face was covering her entire view, and Marcia tried to understand. Mother had cried, but why? Where was she again? She was too weak to acknowledge mother, or smile back, or even say the word mother. The pain was so intense, so much stronger than before. Her ribs burning under the cover. She was completely immobilized by the torment, and her lack of strength. Again, she fell asleep. She slept loudly, coughing every so often.

By morning, Gaia was helpless again. Lost. Perhaps if Fuflunius was home, she would feel calmer. Safer. But he left to find Arminius, and he didn’t come back yet.

The door opened. Arminia was there.

“Mother,” she said. “You should sleep. Let me get water, and then you rest. I’ll stay with her.”

Arminia took the big water pan, and opening the door, she studied the stairs. It was light already, but it was early. Last night, more gangs cruised through Tusculum, but they had no incidents. Fuflunius told them, as long as the house was kept dark at night, and appeared abandoned by day, nobody would cause troubles.

Hesitating at first, Arminia went upstairs, and returned with hot water, a little later. Early in the morning, risk of being seen was low. Ah, but outside, the air was priceless, she reckoned. When this city returned to order, she told to herself, she would walk around the green gardens of Tusculum every day. And yes, she would take little Marcia with her!

Just as Gaia was about to lift herself to go to sleep, Fuflunius came back from the battlefield. His face had the answer of his night out, written all over, but for the sake of the girls, he tried to keep high spirits.

Gaia told him he should keep Arminius’s staff; for the time being at least. She went to sleep in the next room.

Fuflunius prepared food for Arminia and for himself, after changing the bandages on Marcia’s ankles and wrists; both had been baking hot, again. Gaia kept forgetting to do it, and he didn’t  know if it was because she was brought up patrician, or because she was so lost without her husband.

All Fuflunius wished, was for things to return to their natural order. Enough ether already. Tusculum needed air. A society collapse could only last for so long, before it broke down beyond repair. If the Romans weren’t coming, why weren’t they coming? Word was, today Rome had a triumph. Was is too much to ask, that they take care of the few large cities in their area, before? Tusculum. Aricia. There were mass executions in Lanuvium. Riots in Bovilae. Word was, even in Labium, which was a small village, vagrants had taken over the town, and more than a thousand people were set on fire — house by house.

“Fuflunius?”

“Yes, young Domina?”

In a strange way, it always caught him by surprise when Arminia talked to him. She was so straight about herself, so correct in her manners. She was brave. When Arminius found him, ten years ago, and when he brought him to the household, little Arminia was barely five. And yet, even at that age, she was the strongest and the bravest of them all. Well — Marcia was braver, but in a different way.

“Are you nervous?” Arminia said casually, as if to say something.

“I have faith,” Fuflunius said, again taken by surprise. “I have faith, order will be restored.”

His look went a hundred yards away, even though the walls of the room only spanned eight paces.

“So, why did you remove the stash?” Arminia asked.

“The weapons are here,” he said after a pause. “I hid them under the crates when—”

“When Culefius threatened us, you mean?”

“Yes.”

After another pause, Arminia spoke again.

“Fuflunius. I want you to give me a weapon from my father’s stash. I wish for the knife with the dark brown tree engraved on its handle.”

“Of course, Domina,” Fuflunius said. Third surprise in three minutes.

Arminia was arming herself. A true daughter of a Gaul warrior. Cautious, yet brave. Fragile, yet strong. Quiet, yet assertive. As sure as the morning, Arminius would feel proud of this daughter of his!

When Fuflunius opened the crate, Marcia cough in a low voice. As they turned, the beautiful, little girl’s eyes were wide open. She had a pale smile on her face. Her graceful mouth line showed she was in a lot of pain.

“Sister!” Arminia gasped in a big smile, as she went to her knees to be closer to Marcia.

“A-a-ar… Arminia,” Marcia spoke softly. “I was with you, last night.”

Arminia nodded, tears swelling in her eyes. Of course you were with me, you bumblebee. I should — I should have gone with you to the battlefield, that day. To be with you. To protect you! And to help you find him.

As if reading her thoughts, Marcia whispered.

“I was with father. I spoke to him.”

Her voice was dying. She coughed, showing pain, and Arminia held up her head, and gave her small spoon-fulls of warm water. Indeed, Marcia spoke to father in the confines of her soul. But now, she wasn’t sure if it was a dream, or reality.

She fell asleep again.

#

Before first light, Sabina hurried down her street to Papiria’s home, as soon as old Marcus left to the Forum. Because of the triumph, shops closed the day before, and she was all out of ingredients. And with her husband’s mood last night, she didn’t risk being caught out of stuff in the kitchen.

“I feel so embarrassed about this,” Sabina said.

“No go, dear! What for are we neighbors, if we don’t help each other? Papiria said. “Come in, we’ll find all the things you need. My husband left early, and Minima couldn’t wait to be out of here. It’s her first triumph with her friends — instead of me! And she’s been excited for days, by the fairies. What do you need, dear? Honey? Eggs?”

“Ah….. I was wondering if you had pig fat, and some herbs.”

“Of course, of course,” Papiria mumbled. “We love herbs, too. It makes everything taste so much better. Especially pork.”

“Well, my husband said he wanted to try some herb wine, tonight, after the triumph. He wanted to mix it himself…”

“Ohhhh, how exciting. Is there a special occasion, dear?”

“Well…”

“Oh, I am sure there is,” Papiria interrupted. “But who am I, being so nosey? I shouldn’t do that, by all the fairies. And it’s no good manners, to pry into other people’s business, right? Papirius always says so, and it’s true. Oh, but I am just soooooo sure your husband is mighty proud of your young Marcus. Such a warrior he turned out to be! You are so lucky, dear! Tell me — how do you manage to keep it together? I know I couldn’t! I would — I would — I would probably just burst in the Forum.”

For a moment, Sabina understood why her son couldn’t stand her. She just wouldn’t shut up.

Turning serious, and closing in, as if a state secret was about to be spilled, Papiria went on. Sabina had to straighten her back to keep Papiria out of her face.

“Listen, my dear! Marcus can freely avoid the dinner-thing next week, if he feels inclined to do so. He is a man now, and I — we — totally understand. Minima was telling me, Marcus’s feat, his incredible act, was being told all over the Aventine. Minima totally understands him, and she is sooooooo supportive about that. And — come on. You know how young men behave, right?”

No, Sabina didn’t know how young men behaved, but right now, her attention was elsewhere.

“M-mi-Minima? You mean, Minima, your daughter?”

“Oh, dear, you have no idea. She hasn’t spoken to her friends about anything else but Marcus, since the battle! Shhh, I have to tell you a secret,” she put a finger to the lips.

Was there an end to Papiria’s secrets?

“Minima has been sewing a tunic, for Marcus. She is clumsy, the little girl — I know. But she tries! Oh, by all the fairies, I get all flushed when I see her working on the tunic, with needles and pins, under the oil lamp. All she can think of is ‘your Marcus’ …”

“But, Papiria….”

Sabina was in shock. This needed to stop before it got out of hand. She swore to herself, she didn’t have the slightest clue, Papiria’s daughter — Papiria Minima, was crazy about her son. What parts of this story did Papiria not know? Surely they got the part where Marcus killed the man, and slashed his throat, but did Papiria know, ‘her Marcus’ was as good as married?

Sabina rushed home. In her mind, she was racing to find a solution to this problem, before somebody got hurt. What if Papirius — her husband, the Pater Familias of their household also happened to like the idea, without knowing all the details of this entanglement? By Juno, this man was no less than the first grandson of the Pontifex Maximus!

The Papirii were plebeians just like themselves, but old Gaius Papirius sat in the senate, as well as in the temple of Saturn. By Ceres, he was the one who read the Sibylline books! Nobody else had so much power for himself, since Tarquin had been kicked out of Rome.

And if he felt that his grandson’s family was misled in any way, there would be consequences to pay.

But, another idea crossed her mind. Could it be that Marcus himself had allowed for this to happen? Was her son doing this on purpose, to run away from an oath that was — so obviously, splitting his life in two? At first she didn’t think so. Marcus had been unhappy since he returned, but he would not find the courage to disobey the gods. That was precisely what bothered her husband. Marcus would never make his own decisions. He always let others run the plot of his life.

Ah, but she wouldn’t allow herself to be as shallow, by Ceres. Marcus belonged to the meek. So what? She — part of the Sabines who followed Appius Claudius to Rome, less than two generations ago, would always love her son, for who he was, and not for who others wanted him to be. Rome — like all places, was meant to have people like Marcus, too. There was no place on earth, where every single man could have a fortress or a temple. Ceres, her favorite deity — goddess of farmers would certainly understand. Farmers had no fortresses.

She cried while walking, to her own surprise. She needed to speak to her son. Now.

But, by the time she got home, Marcus was already gone. He was to be among the first legions, to parade through the streets of Rome.

===============

III

===============

The Field of Mars was a beehive of activity.

By the time dictator Postumius arrived, the entire field was busy with preparations for the greatest war celebration the city has seen since Lars Porsenna left Rome.

Tired but proud, he soaked in the view. Events from his past ran by his eyes. Rome’s very first Saturnalia. The consecration of the temple of Saturn, less than a year ago. At that time, he could not imagine that today — he was to be hailed as a kinglike ruler, even if for one day only. Yes, war was coming, but he couldn’t have guessed, he himself was going to put an end to the war.

But what he remembered most, was Gaius Papirius’s words, less than an hour ago.

The Pontifex was satisfied, and shared the same views of the future of Rome as he did. But he also warned him.

“Be careful, Postumius,” the old man said. “It is easier to win a battle, or an entire war, than to reap the well deserved fruits of your conquest. In the past, many have won wars, only to fall prey to the heights of their own victories. We live in modern times, and things are changing faster than they have ever changed, my friend! Remember Daedalus, the creator of the Labyrinth. And his son Icarus, who wished to fly too high, only to fall and die.”

“But I rule Rome for a year, Pontifex,” Postumius said. “How can I ensure, others will follow your advice, as well as I do?”

“That is not for you to ensure. Every consul in Rome gets the same power; the same wings, just like Icarus had. What others do with their wings, is not up to you.”

“Pontifex. I know you already know who I fear the most, of taking the wings you speak of, after my term.”

“That’s where you are wrong, Postumius. You fear Claudius will get elected next year. Say, why are you preoccupied?”

“I am not sure,” Postumius said. “That’s the worst part.”

“You said so correctly. You fear, yet you don’t know why you fear. Appius Claudius is greedy, and yet, he loves Rome, just as you do. Put trust in Rome, and the system we are developing here. Our laws have flaws, Postumius! But in time, we will change them, or we will be forced to change them. And if we don’t, we shall fall, like Icarus did.”

“I understand,” Postumius said.

“Your fear for Rome at the hands of others, is a form of greed, as well. For, if you prevent somebody from receiving the power he is legally entitled to, you become the tyrant. Remember. Today — in one hour, you will be king. A demi-god. The day belongs to you, Postumius, and all Rome will hail your success at Lake Regillus. But if you take this with a arrogance you are cheating on Rome.”

“I thank you, Pontifex,” said Postumius.

“I have one more thing for you to ponder on,” Papirius said. “Do of it, as you may.”

He paused for water.

“If I were you — if — I would pick a few men, and raise their actions in a speech. Find a few soldiers who have done, perhaps, something extraordinary, and praise them publicly. Yes. Praise them, or call them to the pulpitum! Entire neighborhoods will remember you forever, for an action like that. Their entire legions will feel the honor, trickling down onto them. Let this be a good day; your son is soon to be born! And remember, Postumius. While fear spreads like fire, praise spreads like the sky above our heads.”

With those words ringing in his ears, Postumius rode out of the pomerium — the sacred inner circle of the city, to prepare for the triumph. His triumph.

Postumius also couldn’t shake the word “son” from his head. Did the old man have a way of knowing, a son was to be born? And if so, how could he know?

Filled with newfound energy, Postumius was so ready for his day!

Priests were laying enormous crates of incense on the westernmost edge of the field, where — according to legend, Rhea Silvia’s twins Romulus and Remus, were put to drown. The shrine erected in Rhea’s honor was encircled by baskets woven by women all over Rome, symbolizing the legend of how the twins survived in the wild.

A little closer, another shrine, erected in the times of the second king of Rome, had legionaries guarding the obscure ‘shields of Mars’ which — also, according to legend, originated from the times of Numa Pompilius himself.

At the very beginning of the parade, senators young and old, where readying themselves with festive togas, and white garlands around their necks. They would be preceded by Verginius Tricostus alone, for the other consul of the year, also happened to be the ‘King for a Day,’ and he would show up, much, much later. Behind Tricostus, Aebutius would be carried in a special litter, and behind him, two empty white horses were set up, representing deities Castor and Pollux. Colorful flowers adorned those two horses. Behind them, all other magistrates — from the oldest Senator to the youngest judge, they were all to walk some four miles through the streets of Rome.

Elsewhere on the field, soldiers were arranging themselves into the legions as they were formed at the battlefield. As they pushed through to find their spots, they mingled with all the senators and magistrates of Rome, who by obligation were to walk on foot on that day.

The senatorial decree, legions were to parade in the order in which Postumius sent them back home after the battle, with the exception of Postumius’s own forces, which would walk last into Rome.

Trumpeters were to enter the city after the magistrates, announcing the event. Behind them, ninety-nine oxen were prepared to pull the spoils of war. They ranged from swords, helmets, belts, polished breast-pieces, shields, bucinas, shovels, pickaxes, daggers, chains, tents, and barrels of various products — all taken from the enemy, to cartloads of gold, brass, silver, copper vases, and gems. They were to be followed by legionaries carrying the insignia — banners and standards, captured from enemy troops.

In a huge lot, blacksmiths were busy placing four thousand prisoners into chains, plus some family members of the unfortunate men. A day or two after the parade, they would be sold as slaves, if they were deemed trustworthy and not too dangerous. The chiefs of enemy legions, however, were to be executed during the festival, right before the general ascended to the Capitoline.

Behind the prisoners, the lictors were to walk with their fasces adorned with laurel wreaths. It would be their axes, that would be used for the executions, and right behind them, Aulus Postumius would be seen standing on a golden chariot, drawn by four horses. He would have a gold-embroidered robe and a flowered tunic, and his face would be painted red. Behind him, his family would walk together with the families of designated heroes of Rome, and at the end, they would all be seated at the pulpitum of honor.

Finally, what all Romans waited for. Their men. The legionaries. The sons, brothers, fathers, and friends who fought for their city, and who now returned in victory. This was the part of the show every citizen wanted to see. Catch a glimpse of a family member, in a sea of marching soldiers.

Two bulls — completely white, were placed at the very end of the procession; they were to be sacrificed in front of the temple of Jupiter, by when the general reached the Capitoline hill.

After that, Rome would feast.

Marcus found his spot on the field. There were cheers everywhere. The men he went to war with, and shared a tent with, were calling his name. Some hugged him with complicit laughter, and they all recounted his deeds. Both the day of the shepherdess, and the day of him killing the giant.

But deep inside, the pain of the memory was like anew. To make matters worse, he promised uncle Lucius he would ‘go-have-fun’ with him, after the feast was over. Why was it, that he was so easily made to promise things? Why couldn’t he say no?

Trumpets announced the very first ray of light, licking the eagle flickering on a hight banner, high on a pole, in the middle of Campus Martius. The Field of Mars.

On the day of the Agonalia, which was celebrated on the twenty-first day of May, the triumphal march was on!

#

“Finally,” old Hostus said, “by Fortuna, here you are!”

He and his son were looking for old Marcus all over the place. They found him — and his brother Lucius, and another man they did not recognize, near the fountain of Vesta, just opposite the temple of the Vestal virgins. The place was packed.

“Hostus,” old Marcus said. “This is Lucius Paterculus, of the guild of merchants. Paterculus — Hostus. Best javelin maker south of Veii.”

“Salve.”

“At your service,” old Hostus said.

Pleasantries were exchanged, and the four men walked on, with young Hostus listening by. Old Marcus explained that Paterculus was soon to be in charge of the shipping of certain raw materials, needed by himself, Lucius and Hostus. That makes us all slaves to Paterculus, Lucius joked, to which old Marcus responded with a profanity which included some body parts of Orcus, the Roman god of the underworld, and punisher of broken oaths.

Now, everyone was properly introduced.

Hostus asked what happened to their old supplier, the one from Ostia.

“He is dealing with Orcus, as we speak,” Marcus said.

Paterculus nodded, shrugging shoulders. With raised eyebrows, Hostus understood. It wasn’t his business to find out the details. Dead was dead, and once a new supplier was in charge, mentioning the old one was back luck. Romans were extremely superstitious.

“So, how come your son is here?” Paterculus asked old Hostus. “He hasn’t been levied?”

“By Fortuna, he hasn’t.”

He didn’t want to explain, his son was sent home when he tried to enlist. It would bring shame, and today wasn’t the day for that.

Just this morning, young Hostus considered staying home. A youth, out in the Forum, on the day of a triumph? It meant he didn’t go to the fight, and he was embarrassed by it. But his father hit him on a shoulder, like he always did, and told him should anyone ask, just tell them to go ask Postumius’s mistress, why he was being kept away from the dictator.

Postumius was not known to have a mistress, but it didn’t matter. Young Hostus cheered up, and came along to the Forum.

They stopped by the fountain. People were streaming to see the place where, the night of the battle, two mysterious horsemen were seen watering and washing their horses.

Word was, the two men, far excelling in both beauty and stature the average Romans, spoke to nobody, and minded their own business. But some neighbors, seeing them outside at such uncanny hour, stepped out their doors and asked if they came from the battlefield. If so, would they perhaps know the result, for the whole city was expecting news of the event.

“Indeed, we came from the camp,” they said.

They added that Rome was the victor, and they left. People searched for them all over the city, with torches and lamps, but the two men were nowhere to be found.

And now, people wanted to catch a glimpse of the place where Castor and Pollux were last seen, in Rome. Their apparition grew in size and details by the day. The senate decreed, a temple was to be built in their honor, on top the, now, famous fountain.

As throngs of peasants from all around Rome kept pushing to get to touch the water of the aquifer, Marcus, Lucius, Paterculus and the two Hostii, squeezed themselves out of the place, in the opposite direction.

“Where can a man find a drink, on this day?” asked Lucius, after they caught some space.

“We can always go behind the Circus,” Hostus offered. “It’s not far, and anyway, right now it’s just the senators walking through the gate. Plenty time.”

They all agreed, and so they went down to the empty street that went along the circus’s north side. Shops were closed by senatorial decree, but there were small eateries open, half hidden between columns. Wine was cheap and bad, but already most benches were taken. Mugs made of lead were chained to the planks. Paterculus offered to pay, and a dark-skinned waitress clad in a short leather skirt, banged a jar of wine on the table, before the collected the coins. Lucius checked her up and down. Marks on her legs told of plagues and men, and hardship. Beggars circled the area like flies, and every so often, someone would come up and offer to clean patrons — a flask of oil and a strigil in hand.

To Lucius, even their sickle-shaped strigils needed some serious cleaning. “Say, what’s good here?” he asked the waitress.

“Nothing, today. Dormice only, but it’s yesterday’s catch,” she said. “If not, wait for after the speech, like everyone else.”

After she left, Marcus said, “I wouldn’t suggest you eat—”

“Oh, I wasn’t going to. I was just being kind.”

Paterculus laughed. “Kind? You would be eating her, not the dormice.” They laughed.

When the conversation stalled, Hostus asked as if caring. “Say, who’s winning this year?”

“Ah, by Mercury,” said Paterculus, “Appius Claudius, of course. Who else has coin enough, to buy all those fat votes, in the senate?”

“You think so?” asked old Marcus. “How about Publius Priscus?”

“Yes,” Lucius said. “He sent colonists to Signia, just recently. I’ve been there myself, just last month. A progressive place.”

“But isn’t Priscus Etruscan, from his mother’s side?” Paterculus asked.

And so it went on. Patrons talked of politics, business, and the future of Rome. They talked of the recent flood. Already, nobody was paying attention to Latins, or the other enemies to the south. They were beaten, by the gods!

The other topic, people spoke of was money. Money, money-lenders, the rise of interest rates — everything that had to do with money.

Coin, as the populace referred to it, was harder to get by, and there was rumor that soon, Rome would have its very own coins. Designed and minted in Rome itself. How was that going to affect commerce? Who would regulate its core value? How would money-lenders react, if suddenly the senate was in charge of monetary circulation?

“Ha! Can you imagine? Postumius on a coin? With a lupa on the other side of the coin?” Paterculus said.

They all laughed, for lupa in Latin, meant both a she-wolf and a whore.

A while later, old Hostus closed in on his friend, and asked, in a low voice, “Marcus, old friend. I meant to ask you for a while, now. Could you borrow some coin?”

“Have you been losing on the horses, recently?” old Marcus asked.

“By Fortuna, I haven’t,” old Hostus exclaimed.

Somehow, they all felt he was lying.

#

Six days passed. By now, it was obvious Marcia’s father was not coming home.

Gaia stomach turned into a knot, every time she contemplated their situation. Earlier, Fuflunius said they were low on food and water.

He went to the nearest fountain to fetch some, whenever he could. He took care care not to go by day, or too early at night. That’s when gangs of runaway slaves and exiles, turned warriors, turned kingpins roamed the streets of patrician households. The men had clearly mapped out the neighborhood, and every few blocks a different horde was in charge. They even had their own prostitutes, yanked out from homes in the less affluent parts of Tusculum. But right before dawn, they were mostly asleep, chock-full of bad wine and worse food. Still, Fuflunius had to be careful, and he already learned to smell his itinerary in advance. Strong reek of hemp, alcohol, and after-sex sweat were virtually a guarantee, the block was clear.

Last night it was a hundredfold harder, because Arminia insisted to go with Fuflunius. Gaia fought her decision for hours. Fausta and Cornelia deemed her insane, but in the end, the girl’s will prevailed.

They crouched behind cornerstones, crawled beneath garden fences, and sought cover of every corner they found, but in the end, Arminia didn’t even have to make use of her knife. Except for the dormouse she caught at the end, at the steps of her own house. At seventeen, Arminia was on top of her world.

“You eat it. I won’t,” Cornelia said.

In a strange way, the days spent hiding in the underground vault, made the girls bond like never before. Yes, they did go out together often, but it was more like a ragtag group of girls, sisterhood being their only glue.

And, to insiders, it was easy to tell two groups apart. Fausta, Arminia, and Cornelia were the three ‘adult’ girls, and Tacia and Marcia were the two ‘little’ ones.

Of the three bigger girls, Fausta was the beauty, Arminia the muscles, and Cornelia the brains. Even though they differed like three separate summits in a mountain range, they clung together whenever need arose. And these days, the need was no farther away, than the stairs to the floor above ground.

About Tacia and Marcia, there was a strange juxtaposition to be seen. Tacia, while being a year older than Marcia, was easily seen as the smallest of them all. In her behavior, her critical thinking, and even her eating habits, she seemed younger to Marcia. She passed her elder sister in height by age eight or nine, and in adult thinking, much earlier than that. Already by when the girls began to learn their first letters from Fuflunius, Tacia would always try to copy Marcia, and not the other way around.

But Marcia was also — by far, father’s favorite girl. Perhaps because Marcia adapted to the Latins, or Romans, the least; or perhaps because she cringed every time Roman or Etruscan gods were invoked.

Arminius was a great father but he just wasn’t home, all the time. He would come home from war, and the girls would shower him with hugs, kisses, and show-offs of all the things they have learnt while he was away. There, Marcia was always the first, when she was little. Later, around age seven or eight, she changed, and she pushed them all, to go and to show-off, before she did. She kept herself last, for daddy. The girls didn’t notice, but mother did. And so did Arminius.

“Flower,” Arminius told her, three days before he left, “if there is one true angel from among our daughters, it is Marcia.”

“But why,” Gaia would ask. “Aren’t they all precious in their own way?”

“Oh, Gaia — my little goddess. Of course they are. But — some day you’ll understand. Some day, my flower.”

She melted every time he spoke like that. He used to call her ‘dawn’ or ‘flower’ or ‘petal’ as an affirmation of nature. The power of nature. In Greek mythology, Gaia was the goddess of earth, born at the dawn of creation itself. And so, Arminius’s ‘little goddess’ never regretted her name change, from Lucretia — her father’s family name, to Gaia, and she never missed her own parents.

Arminius, her prince from the north — and later their five daughters, was all she lived for, and that was alright by her.

Roman husbands would die before calling their wives ‘petal’ or ‘dawn.’

“Domina,” Fuflunius said.

He understood Gaia was far away, in her mind, but this couldn’t wait.

“Marcia needs to get washed, Domina! It has been too many days, and her skin will…”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Gaia said. “I just don’t see how I will get the strength to do it.”

“Domina. I cannot do it, by my gods.”

“Of course, Fuflunius. You have been doing too much already. I will talk to Arminia, perhaps we can do it together.”

Gaia sighed. Why was life so miserable? Why they had to wash, yet at the same time, conserve water? Where was justice, when they needed it most. Where were the gods, when she already promised to offer a huge donative to the temple of Juno, as soon as they got to Rome? And why were the other gods deaf? She needed protection. She needed things. She needed peace.

And above all, she needed not to have a daughter in such dire need, at the brink of death. She reckoned that, after all these days, Marcia still didn’t make it, and she hasn’t eaten except the few times Arminia fed her. Little Marcia was still hovering between life and death. She was lucid at times, only to fall back into a deep nightmares. What power was Morpheus wielding over her soul?

Again, Gaia faced the reality. For some reason, her daughter was set against gods. As a little girl, she screamed and scowled when they had to drag her into some temple.

“Oh, sweet Juno,” she said out loud. “Is my daughter cursed? You know? She is turning into a woman.”

Fuflunius, slave to their house and teacher to the girls, promised to himself, he’d keep Gaia’s words in his mind. Perhaps, Marcia was in need of a different god. Perhaps, there was someone who could help. After social order was restored, he would go ask the old woman about it.

Her name was Leah. She was form a place the Romans called Judea.

#

The masses didn’t care about senators walking through the Porta Triumphalis, the gate that only opened for such occasions.

Would it have been allowed, they would probably practice their aim of rotten fruits and cow dung cakes on them, so that, by when the prisoners of war arrived, they had distance, gravity, and eventual windspeed, well rehearsed.

Aside from a handful of famous magistrates, the large majority of senators were just faces to the crowd. The masses recognized both brothers Tricostus — Titus and Aulus, and they were familiar with Servilius Priscus. Of course, everyone knew Appius Claudius, because he was depicted on walls all over Rome, most of the times having obscene phalluses stuck in some of his body parts. But the vast majority of Romans had no idea what Minucius or Valerius Potitus looked like. And so, everyone was actually happy when the boring, old men went past their view.

The same happened with the trumpeters and the spoils of war. While the first few carts of oxen dragging copper cauldrons and golden bracelets were interesting, people were glad when the last one was through.

Triumphs moved at a slow pace, and so, by the time senators were done and already sitting, musicians and dancing girls behind the war booty, were still out in the Field of Mars. They would all follow a strict route, which went south along the river, until they entered the pomerium, walked through the Gate of Triumph, and turned toward the Circus Maximus. But because of the recent flood, the procession turned right before the circus, and went straight onto Via Sacra. It was the street where priestesses and high-class prostitutes fished for clients, on any other day. It was also the street were incense, myrrh, thyme, and spices from afar were to be found. From there, the throng followed north. The Forum, and up to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. But along the way, there would be several stops. The one where enemy leaders were beheaded was a crowd favorite, and the public congested the space, long before the captured began to walk into Rome.

Another brief stop was where the rest of the prisoners were dragged away from the triumph, and headed to the Mamertine prison — the only prison of Rome. But, since there wasn’t enough space in that prison, most captives were immediately sold over to wholesale slave-traders, who would deliver them to markets, next morning.

It was a known fact that while Romans ate, drank, and laughed through the night, slaves were brushed clean, oiled, branded for sale, and had new chains applied.

But by far the longest stop was at the Roman Forum, before ascending to the Capitoline Hill. The dictator would speak there. People were praised, or otherwise shown to the public, there.

It was also where honored guests got to sit on a stage, called the pulpitum or rostra, and where citizens could see who was on his way up, within the tricky dynamics of Roman society. Every row mattered, and every seat closer to the dictator meant the person in question deserved greater prestige. Seats were not for sale, but prior monetary favors could achieve the same effect. Gossip-seekers would watch this closely, and fables were woven on why such-and-such person, deserved such-and-such seat.

It was also a known fact every person in Rome knew exactly, where he wanted to be, during a triumph. The hungry cowered near the wooden tables, where food would soon to be thrown at them.

Old Marcus was disgusted, and more than once, he grumbled about it. “What will they do next? Feed the crowds every day — for free?”

For those who wanted to do well — socially speaking, it was best to stand in front of the places of honor. The Capitoline Hill, if they had access. The Forum, if not. People were there to see and to be seen.

For those who wanted excitement, following dancers or prisoners of war, was the place to be. Women mostly left it to men, to watch the flogging and beheading. And Postumius did not disappoint there, either. More than two hundred men had their heads chopped off, on that afternoon. Syndicated street cleaners quickly dragged corpses and heads away, dispersing sand over free-flowing blood. They worked with lictors, and split the profits of the fortunes to be made from the parts.

Finally, there were people who simply sought out their sons in the parade, new soldiers for Rome.

Such was the case of Marcus and Sabina, closely followed by the Papirii, so that they could get a good look at their young Marcus, in full triumphal uniform. They managed to cram into the crowd, a few hundred yards from where Postumius’s longest speech was to be made. Rome’s sun drenched them in bliss and sweat.

And their surprise was huge when Postumius stood on the pulpitum and announced that five soldiers performed acts of exceptional bravery, and he was about to call them out, and present them to the commonwealth of Rome.

Sabina’s heart stopped for a moment, for she feared the dictator would recount their deeds, and now Papiria would know every detail of what happened. And to make things worse, Sabina still didn’t have time to tell her husband about the whole affair. Oh, how angry he would be, once he understood the implications of this whole thing! Deep in her heart, Sabina prayed for Marcus not to be summoned, among the five heroes. Papiria — on the other hand, kept hugging Sabina into herself, giving her props and crossing her fingers. Their husbands stood behind them, in anticipation.

“Your son, your son, your son. I can’t wait!” Papiria kept saying.

Postumius first called a young man from the city of Corbio, whose parents were killed by the Latins, less than a month before the battle. His name was Caius Marcius, of patrician lineage, and the boy stood tall and proud, facing the crowd.

To Sabina, this was a high, like she has never had in her life. She was saved! Not only did Postumius speak too low; the crowd’s cheering was way to loud, for anything to be heard clearly. Besides, Postumius only read a sentence or two, and there was no way he would read into details of the event. Ah, the relief, from one minute to the next! Now, Sabina prayed for Marcus to be called up, among the five!

Postumius called three more Roman youth, whose heroic actions saved many lives, and they all took their spots next to the first. One came from Ostia, and the other two were from Rome, proper. Apparently all three were plebeians, but even that wasn’t clear, with all the screaming and cheering from the crowd.

Last, Postumius called Marcus Aelius up to the pulpitum, and praised him for singlehandedly killing a leader of the enemy lines, right after the Dioscuri began helping Rome, in Rome’s darkest hour.

Everyone got the words ‘Rome’s darkest hour’ and so, Marcus was cheered as if he, personally, had saved Rome in its ‘darkest hour.’ Transfixed, the boy stood on the stage, next to the other four, as if made of stone. His flustered gaze could probably reach the battlefield itself.

Sabina cried from watching the scene, not believing her own eyes. Two days ago, she was sure Marcus would lead a happy, yet simple life in Rome. He belonged to the meek, she said. Wasn’t that what she told herself? Well… look at him now, her heart kept yelling. Look at my son!

Papiria was hugging her all the time, her eyes wet and sticky as apricots. She also found out where her daughter was, in the crowd, for when Marcus’s name was called up, Minima out-screamed the entire Roman Forum with a group of her teenage friends, bursting in successive jolts of hysteria.

Old Papirius congratulated the father. Such things could turn a man’s life for the better, in Rome. These were modern times.

Old Marcus, on the other hand, was perplexed. He too, heard the words ‘Rome’s darkest hour’ and he couldn’t imagine Postumius would lend such weight to his son’s action. Was his son’s deed, truly so important? Was there a strategic aspect to it, he failed to see? But for the first time, his guts smiled. The crowd was going crazy about his boy — a first! Some two-hundred yards away, his son’s legion began to knock the ground with their spear’s ends. By sheer repetition, it was like magic. A goosebump effect.

After shaking hands, the five youth were shown down the pulpitum, following a centurion. As they disappeared behind the stage, Sabina was near collapse.

“I told you, dear! I told you. I wouldn’t be able to hold it together, either,” Papiria said. Her hug was squeezing the air out of Sabina.

In another part of the Forum, uncle Lucius watched the entire scene from his own angle. They had split earlier on, when the women showed up.

And so, Lucius had been wandering around the Forum, all on his own. Plenty time to think. Going through his own years of youth, memories of the girl he once married, were fading. The only pain that remained was the sight of his children, crying and burning. But they, too, were getting shrouded in some red and yellowish mist. He had not visited his home, in upstream Fidenae, for years. He was now busy protecting the boy of his grumpy brother, and he was barely doing any real work. He was also planning on setting up a business in Signia, a new Roman colony to the southeast. The coin he had accumulated from all those years, working as a lumberjack and selling timber to Rome, served him well now.

Savoring the moment, he smiled. “What a boy you’ve come out to be. Heh? I have to show you the world!”

#

Gaius Lucretius Corsicanus, a rich patrician of noble ancestry, left the pulpitum of the dictator, right after the speech.

On his way out, he quickly bid one of his men to come closer; a scout. Fresh news from beyond the pomerium, from outside the walls of Rome. He was fed up with what he got.

Lucretius was a cold, calculating man, who considered life was to be lived by giving and receiving, but always giving last, and a little less than he received. That, for one, made him sinfully rich.

In fact, Lucretius was one of the three richest men in Rome at the time, the other two being Appius Claudius himself, and the leader of the clan of the Fabii. All too often, Lucretius enjoyed analyzing the differences between the three.

Appius prided himself of his sons. The Fabii were building a clan people could hardly follow up with. He, on the other hand, relished the fact that his only daughter wasn’t even listed in Rome, even though she was a Roman through and through. She didn’t go by Lucretia, but by Gaia instead, on account of her impossible stubbornness, when she was a youth.

But the differences didn’t end there.

While Claudius and Fabius were political — ergo, public figures, Lucretius played his riches in the anonymity of private life. While the two senators were always one meal away from being blamed by the masses for anything that went wrong, he had nobody but himself as a judge. While Claudius was openly anti-plebeian, and produced hatred from the masses of Rome wherever he went, Lucretius could practically walk unguarded in Rome, without being recognized. While Fabius’s clan had to account for every coin they produced, Lucretius only had a few magistrates who even had an idea he produced coins.

And lastly, there was the geopolitical difference among the three. Claudius built his riches by slowly grabbing lands to the south of Rome. Capua and the Campanians — as well as Cumae, were his enemies, economically speaking. In the meantime, the Fabii were expanding to the north, and obviously, they were clashing with Veii and the Etruscans. Lucretius, however, went west. Ostia, and huge lands and mines on the island of Corsica were his domain. For this, he was known to excel in a skill, both Claudius and Fabius were not even close.

The skill of diplomacy.

In Ostia, he owned half of the shipping docks, and he even built the city’s first and only ‘Naval Hospital’ in a time, when Rome had no navy. He owned warehouses along the port, and rented space for grains, salt, and anything else that came long, to be stored. He was the first man to built three-storied homes in a time when Ostia was known for its unstable, waterlogged ground, surrounded by swamplands.

On the island of Corsica, he took up fifty-year long leases, of enormous mines and plantations. Fruits and produce arrived daily in Rome, and most people didn’t even think that the products they ate were not from Sicily or Capua. He had excellent comercial relations with the kings of the Etruscan cities, and he even dealt with the Gauls, further to the north. The inhabitants of the valley of the river Po had no metals to speak of, and their complete lack of mineral resources was just another opportunity that presented itself to Lucretius.

Veii. Laurentum. Fufluna. Alalia. Even Carthage and Delphi. In a time when goods traveled ten miles from farm to market, Lucretius had a 500-mile wide network of trade. Iron ore, salt, gems, shellfish, and even corals, he traded them all. And yet, his biggest moneymaker was not a port along the Mediterranean, but Rome itself, for Lucretius was also one of the seven big fathers in the city. Unrecognized by day, he dealt with the black markets by night. And by far, the most lucrative of these markets was lending money to the poor. And getting back a little more than he gave, which equated to the maxim of his life.

Now, his scouts brought news about riots in the city he hated to death. Tusculum.

And so, after the speech of Postumius, he took action in his own hands. With his personal army — five hundred well-paid, well-trained, mercenaries, he slipped out of Rome. He wanted to see if he could undo the biggest mistake of his life.

He had not seen his daughter for nearly two decades, but now he had confirmation that her husband was killed in the battle that led to this triumph. He could force his daughter back to Rome — where she belonged, and thus fulfill the promise he gave to his wife — Gaia’s mother, many years ago.

Quietly, they left Rome, which on that day had all its temple doors wide open, and its shops closed. They would arrive by next dawn, for he himself wasn’t young anymore. Tomorrow, he would see his five grand-daughters, for the first time in his life. And hopefully, he would bring them back to Rome, so the girls could meet their dying grandmother.

“How times have changed,” he said.

He swore not to see his own daughter ever again, the day she married that brute from the north. He did keep his word, for all those years. She was always unyielding in her will, and he was practically forced to give in to her whim. In the end, he ‘gave’ them a home, as far away as he could. He built that home with his own hands. He even dug out two underground rooms in the house, for he dreamt of producing and storing wine, in his own youth.

But life continued, and he married. He returned to Rome, and the house was lent to a carpenter, in exchange for yearly coin. A daughter was born to them. By that time, Tarquinius Superbus was already in power.

Later yet, their daughter met the man of her life, and she fell for him so hard, not Jupiter himself could have turned her around.

Now, the man she loved so profoundly was dead. This boy Marcus killed him, Postumius read. He just snapped with his daggers, the general said, and Rome was saved in its ‘darkest hour.’

“By Juno Moneta, I’d like to know that boy better. To kill a man who made a living out of killing others? No small feat.”

Gaia was probably poor, for what could a warrior — a seasonal mercenary, earn? Lucretius had warned her about it, but at that time, it was useless. The allure of ‘eternally’ being in the arms of her half-Gaul, half-Latin prince, was all his daughter could think of. Well, so much for eternity.

Lucretius couldn’t bring himself to sell her, or kill her, something he was legally allowed to do. He also couldn’t kill her husband, for he was a young prince, from one of the tribes in the north, he secretly had business with. A banned prince, but still a prince. And so, he allowed her to marry the man, and he and his wife disappeared from her life.

For eighteen years, they didn’t set foot in Tusculum, and Gaia never invited or visited them.

As they rode on, Lucretius was certain, none of his mercenaries would ever be rich.

Except, perhaps, Axilla, the commander.

Axilla always rode next to Lucretius. He wasn’t fond of talking, stepping into temples, and making deals with strangers.

He also hated Etruscans, but that didn’t interfere with his master’s business at all.

#

Aristodemos of Cumae was slowly losing his patience.

“Let’s see,” he said. “How can I make myself more clear?”

For two days, Tarquin and Aristodemos were trying to find a common ground, given the prerogatives both monarchs had.

Messengers from Tusculum arrived, and the news of riots in the city were now known to everyone in the palace. Truly, this had become a war of information, as old Tarquin was seeing it. His own messenger arrived almost at the same time as Aristodemos’s scout. And while the difference lay in their methods, the result was the same. Tarquin relied on slaves turned ears, in the very mansion Aristodemos offered him, and those slaves were getting their news through spies in places like markets, temples, and small shops. They, in turn, had their news from couriers, riding along the lowland region between the Apennines and the Tyrrhenian Sea.

All along the coast, swamplands called the Pomptine Marshes, offered a buffer zone between Rome’s southern domains, and the northern edge of Campania. Bandits, pirates, and brigands were extorting money and goods from merchants and travelers between Etruria and Magna Graecia — as the south of Italy was called, for centuries. But after several successful raids, marshes were largely free of crime now. They became the quickest way to spread goods, news, and culture. And coins, which Romans loved, but didn’t produce by themselves. Yet.

In Rome, some were talking of building a road that would, some day, cut through the entire marshland and connect Rome to the very heel of Italy. It would be Rome’s own road, and taxes would be collected along the way. Most, however, believed it to be an impossible feat. Nothing more than a politician’s vain promise to get more votes.

Tarquin still recalled the day, he appeared at the court of Lars Porsenna, asking for a grand favor. Porsenna, the king of Clusium, one of the twelve confederate cities of Etruria, wasn’t going to help Tarquin just because his grandfather was an Etruscan, himself. Far from that. Each city tried to stomp out their own neighbors, when it came to commerce and land management. The cities only held nominal reunions on a yearly basis, for issues like war, religion, and such. But otherwise, they were all free to do as they wished.

Back when he was king in Rome, this meant that he could chose whom to trade with, and whom to punish out of a trade. It was a prosperous time, as he recalled it.

But now, he was dealing with an impertinent murderer who called himself the savior of children, and his own life was at stake. It was best to deal with the issues, one by one, thus buying more time.

But it was obvious that Aristodemos saw through his ruse, and he insisted that all the issues Tarquin had laid on the table the day before, were to be dealt at the same time.

“How have we wandered off so far from each other, my lord?” he asked.

“We haven’t wandered anywhere,” Tarquin said. “You are just thinking me a hostage in your palace, and you are trying to overwork me. It’s as simple at that.”

“By the goddesses — a hostage!”

Just mentioning the word hostage made Aristodemos play offended. He sure was a good actor.

“Well, if I am not a hostage here, why am I not allowed to send my own man to Tusculum, and see about the topic that most causes you grief?”

“Oh, I haven’t said you can’t—”

“So, stand by your word. I am sending somebody now!”

Seeing he couldn’t get himself out the sudden trap, Aristodemos obliged. With a wink of his hand he called an aide. He was to make sure that Tarquin was allowed to pick a man of his choice, and send him up north.

“I am sending Portius to see my men, outside. Portius will pick a man, and return to me. And if you interfere in any way — even in the slightest manner, I should think of leaving—”

“That will not be necessary, your majesty,” Aristodemos said. The last thing he wanted was to lose Tarquin as his hostage. He still needed him, and he needed him alive. Besides, he did indeed want information on what exactly happened to the gold, Mamilius took out of Tusculum.

“Was Mamilius such an idiot? How can a man go to battle, and take all his worth with him? Was he not trusting his wife or father-in-law? Was he planning to go elsewhere, with the gold? Surely he had a plan, and getting killed in the battle, greatly stopped his plan.”

Another idea crossed his mind. “Could it be that the gold was there — in Tusculum, the whole time? Was Tarquin pulling a trick on him, making him believe the gold was gone in the most stupid manner? Could it be that Tarquinia’s message, earlier that morning, was all lies? By the goddesses, I have to see through this matter. Whomever Portius choses to send to Tusculum, needs to be shadowed.”

Tarquin spoke briefly with Portius. After that, both monarchs watched him walk out the hall.

Portius knew just the man for the job. Someone easily written off as a casualty. Someone they could trust to die a painful death. Whomever Portius chose, was a dead man.

“Your majesty,” Aristodemos said, “will it be fine, to invite your troops to join us tonight? Perhaps you were right. Perhaps we can find a way to accommodate your men within the walls of the city. Summer is upon us, you know?”

Tarquin was thinking fast. “By Vatika. What idea crossed your poisonous mind? Suddenly, you offer to invite my men to enter Cumae?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “That would solve two of our issues.”

Aristodemos smiled. “To health,” he said. Glasses were raised for a toast.

“If I was able to twist an entire generation of men in Cumae,” he pondered, “perverting a few horny soldiers will be child’s play.”

#

“Ready for some fun, nephew?” old Lucius said. A grin on his face.

Marcus, indifferent for going to a place he didn’t care for, but glad for being out of his house, nodded.

“Well, let’s go!”

And so, uncle and nephew directed themselves to Rome’s sleaziest neighborhood. Subura.

For centuries, this neighborhood was actually its own village, until the walls built by the sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius, encompassed the area. Most of Subura was inhabited by honest, hard-working plebeians with jobs and shops. Further north, Subura merged into the Esquiline Hill.

It was where father sent him to learn his first letters and ciphers. It was also the place where he saw a dead man, for the first time in his life. He was on his way back from school, when a horse hit a man crossing a street. The man on the horse pulled a cloak over the unfortunate pedestrian, but Marcus was able to see both his feet and the top of his head. Marcus couldn’t explain why, but he lingered there for a long while. He couldn’t remember what happened to the dead man, after all, but he did remember not being able to sleep for many nights. He was seven or eight, and he never spoke about it, with anyone.

As they went further north, the slopes went steeper, and shops gave way to huts with red tiles, and strange paintings on their walls.

“Marcus. We’ll have a drink first. After that, we’ll have some real fun.” Lucius pointed at the houses, advertising their specialties with unmistakable images drawn around doors and tiny windows.

Marcus nodded. He just wanted to be away, in his own misery.

Seeing him distraught, Lucius pondered what type of girl was best for Marcus. He had three different types in mind, a day earlier. But now, something closer to a man’s heart — not his loins, was maybe, the best way to go.

They weren’t going to some small, nameless brothel. Instead, they would visit the one place in Subura, that rivaled with the Capitoline Hill, in luxury and abundance. The Emporium, a true house of pleasure hovered over Subura like a cluster of grapes. Each of the many rooms of the highly sought-after complex, being an individual grape.

The windows offered unique views to the city below. Glued out of many pieces of glass, and painted in erotic shades or red, purple, and pink, their shapes reminded parts of a female body. Senators, money-lenders, and affluent merchants were seen there, every so often, and some said that, many decades ago, king Tarquin found his mistress, right in the middle of that bunch of grapes.

Men could order girls by their qualities, race, and the built of their bodies. Some liked them well-upholstered. Others liked them tall and gaunt. Some girls were known for their acting skills, others for techniques men wouldn’t dare trying at home. Some were experienced, while others were advertised for still being clueless in bed. There were even a few free women, who did it for their own purse.

And so, depending on Marcus’s pick, Lucius would find the right girl. He chose three lesser goddesses as symbols, so Marcus wouldn’t feel offended by having them compared to whores.

If Marcus picked Cybele, the goddess of nature and wild animals, they would find a girl whose intensity would leave Marcus, both satisfied and sapped in the pleasure of savage mating. The girl would know how to run, and to provoke, and to run again. She would know when he was ready for another hunt, after the first lap. Romance would be sacrificed, on account of lust. Bite marks would be a natural consequence of such a night.

If Marcus picked Larunda, a mythological nymph punished by Jupiter with muteness, Lucius would ask for a submissive girl. She would gladly put herself in harm’s way, only to have her partner discover pleasures at the expense of her own pain. Pleasures he himself, never thought conceivable. She would relish in seeing him take command, and blindly encourage him to cross limits, and break taboos.

And if Marcus picked Nox, the chief goddess of the night, Lucius would find a girl whose experience outclassed the other two. The girl who know the path to the summit by touching and exploring, probing and caressing. She would take the long path of sweet torture, rather than a feral race. She would increase and decrease. Tighten and release. Build up and relax. All too often, clients fell in love with girls who played Nox.

Lucius was afraid, neither Cybele, nor Larunda, nor Nox, were the right girl for Marcus, tonight.

Perhaps Marcus needed goddess Unxia, a minor goddess of marriage and harmony. She would spend the night cherishing her man, willing to postpone the rush towards carnal heights. She would converse, or remain quiet. She would nurture. She would show herself understanding. Patient and of incredible beauty, she would, however, answer to his needs, whenever he wished.

“But — one never knows,” Lucius thought. Some wine was due first.

“Why are you taking me to the—”

Marcus couldn’t even get himself to say the word fornicaria — whores.

“I am not taking you anywhere. You are taking me,” Lucius said.

With a skewed face, Marcus was demanding an explanation. And so, Lucius gave him one. “You see, the only difference is, I know where to find the roots, we are looking for. You don’t. But it’s you who is going to take them, prepare them, and turn them into something. Something useful.”

“Fine. What if I am not looking for roots?”

“In that case we go home, and nobody gets a thing,” Lucius said. “No gain, no loss. In fact, it’s the easiest way out. And if you wish to do so, we can leave now.”

“No, no,” Marcus said. He didn’t want to go home. And, deep in his heart, he wanted to cross that barrier, too — once and for all.

Lucius promised the place to be clean. Oil lamps and a clean bed, he said. In a room for themselves, he said. The girl of his choice would bathe him, and relax his muscles with her hands, before they even went to bed. Soothing fragrances would unwind his worries, and by morning he would feel contented.

Lucius suggested Marcus give the girl a small gift, as soon as they were alone. A reassurance, that she wasn’t dealing with a brute from some wretched place. Nothing too big, as to scare the girl, but also nothing too small, to show the gift was planned.

The girl in question would be a slave, and she therefore had no choice in the matter. They were paying guests. The money went to a procurer or leno, and the girl was there to oblige. It disheartened him a bit, but he agreed, payment guaranteed a clean bill of health.

What pushed him most to do this, however, was the memory of how he failed, last time he tried. Every time he pictured the scene, his face went sour, sucking air through gritted teeth. What an idiot he was.

A few days before the battle, while camped out in the field, his contubernale — tent mates, were egging him on, talking of women, virginity, and all that. He was, by far, the youngest among the eight.

He learned that two soldiers were always on watch duty, so there were six legionaries around, most of the time. And so, one day, while being on patrol, they encountered a shepherdess, out in the country. They surrounded her, and Marcus watched on — in terror and disbelief, what would they do to her, next. It turned out, the woman pulled her long, muddy skirt up and lay flat on the ground. She lifted her legs, and, by the sound of it, she either pretended, or enjoyed it as much as all of his friends. All five. They held her there, and called on Marcus to go ahead, and get on top of the woman. Frightened, but even more so, of being laughed out, he did as they told him. But the truth was, he was far too scared to even find power, and the mark. In the end, though, he managed to pretend, he finished the deed.

But as stupid and spent as his friends were, they failed to notice his act.

But there, in the middle of the act, there was a moment when he glanced at the woman, straight into her eyes. She looked back at him, and he detected thankfulness in her expression. Every day after that, he looked out for her over the pastures, but he never saw her again.

After another mug of wine, Marcus took up the challenge.

“I’ll take those roots,” he said. “They’ll make good glue, boiled with birch tar and wax.”

Lucius laughed. Marcus was talking of glue for shields, while they were out to have some fun? What an incredible nephew he had!

An idea came up. Marcus asked him — a while ago, about the ingredients to make boss glue. He always wanted to know how to glue the boss line, on top of the shield, once the rest was dry. A boss line — as they called it, was a strip of metal, which crossed the entire scutum from top to bottom, and along the front, giving it strength and a means to push an enemy away. It had different designs, and some of them even came with sharp teeth, to injure foes. When Marcus was smaller, he used to call it the lizard’s back, because it reminded him of the crest along the back of the animal.

A boss line was a tricky job, and the ingredients of the glue were kept a secret. Metal didn’t glue to wood. Nailing or clamping it down, would make it far too heavy.

“I’ll teach you the secret, after all this is done,” Lucius said. “The boss glue.”

Marcus’s eyes went big. A smile from ear to ear.

“After this, you mean?” He pointed to the whorehouses.

“No, not this,” Lucius said. “After the Tusculum thing has been solved.”

Marcus slouched down. “Arrrgh… not fair.”

Lucius was ready for the reeling. “Fine. Let me raise the stakes, and change the rules.”

“Alright,” Marcus said. “What rules have changed? No more waiting until I am married, and stuck in Tusculum?”

Lucius laughed, caught by surprise. The boy was right, that ruled had to be altered. “First of all, you won’t be stuck there. Your future wife will be stuck here, in Rome. Secondly, yes, I am changing the rule. Going to see whores after your wedding would put me in trouble, too. So, forget about that, heh?”

“Great,” Marcus said.

“Well, here is the thing. First, I considered giving you a goddess.”

“A goddess?”

“But now, since I will give you a secret — a secret well worth in your profession, you should do something double the effort. Heh?”

In his mind, it was worth the cost. He would pay double, it didn’t matter. Since men lived on earth, they always helped their younger fellows. The act of initiation. The door to the secrets of night. Sometimes, fathers opened that door for their own sons. Sometimes, good friends did it. And in this case, an uncle. The knowledge was always passed down generations, unbeknown to women. The cost of it was trivial.

Marcus tried to understand the meaning of double the effort.

“We have to come here, twice, you mean?”

“No, no, no! Double is not twice. Double means twofold!”

“I don’t understand,” Marcus said.

Lucius smiled. “Marcus. Pick two goddesses, from three I will name to you, now.”

“What?”

“Cybele, Larunda, or Nox? Remember — you must pick two.”

On purpose, Lucius left Unxia out of the game. That would be the role of Marcus’s future wife.

After Marcus picked his two goddesses, Lucius produced two small figurines from his bag, and placed them on the table. They were beautifully carved from light wood, revealing an artist’s true talent. Both had a round base made of ivory, so they could stand on some place.”

“The gifts for your two goddesses,” he said.

#

Marcia was always the first to wake up among her sisters, even before she caught the shivering.

Today, she was sitting on her cot, slowly sipping warm lentil soup. Nothing but lentils were left in the house, aside from lard and salt. Fuflunius sat nearby, cheering on every mouthful. On the other side, Fausta watched, in her typical quiet glare.

“Do you feel hot, inside?” she asked.

Marcia shook her head. She was feeling much better. Aside from a sharp pain in her throat, which made swallowing and speaking a horrible task, she was feeling good.

“Dizzy?”

“No,” Marcia said. It was a whisper.

When Cornelia walked in, she gave Marcia a big, complicit smile.

From her talks with mother and Arminia, their youngest sister was becoming a woman. Even there, she was beating Tacia to it.

Yesterday, they managed to wash Marcia, as she lay unconscious. Her thorn wounds were slowly closing, and the bruises from the fall into the ravine were dark marks by now. A thick layer of swelter, yellow fluids from macerations, and her womanly emanations were all cleaned off, not by strigil, but by warm water and a soft, dampened cloth. Arminia, in a newfound admiration for her younger sibling, took to the task like a religious service. She kept blaming herself for what happened to Marcia, that night.

“Sister,” Cornelia said. “How are you feeling?”

“Much better,” Marcia said.

It pained her throat. The day before, as she was told, she had another bout of blood, coming out of her mouth, and Fuflunius recommended, not to make Marcia talk too much.

“I will speak, but you don’t need to reply. Give your throat a rest,” Fuflunius said.

“I have spoken to a family of migrants, to come and help us out. Your mother agreed to it, since we can not leave the house during the day, and we are out of food. Your sister here, and I, fetch water at night, but it is becoming increasingly dangerous.”

Marcia has working hard to keep up with the information. Why were they underground? What happened, after the Romans won? Why was the city in a state of unrest?

But above all — where was father?

“Marcia,” Fuflunius said, “he is in a better place now—”

In a burst of desperation, Marcia cried out, for she couldn’t take the news. Arminia covered her mouth, fearing they would be heard.

“Shhh, sister,” she said. “It’s fine. It already happened.”

“No — it didn’t happen,” Marcia screamed through her sister’s hand. “It can’t happen!”

“Sister, sister! You, yourself, said so. You spoke to him, you said.”

Marcia looked up, confused.

Tacia and mother came in, woken by the screams. Mother explained it was unlikely their father would be found alive, after so many days. They also told Marcia how the Etruscan priest refused to heal her, and how he threatened to kidnap Marcia, and take her to a temple.

Marcia had a sudden feeling, that this was not over. In the mist of her memories, she could remember Culefius.

Way back. Years ago!

Mother was hiring a teacher, so the girls could learn to read and write. How old was she? Four? Five, perhaps, she couldn’t say. Either way, when mother brought in the new teacher, Marcia refused to stay in the room. She cried and screamed, as if possessed. She was so adamant about not facing Culefius, that her sisters caught on her fear. Gaia was left with no choice but to cancel the plan, and send the priest away. Gaia gave him a few coins for the trouble. Marcia cried for three full days, after that.

And now, they were all saying daddy was dead. It couldn’t be.

“We have to accept reality, young Marcia,” Fuflunius said.

Of all five sisters, he only addressed Marcia by name, and only sometimes. To the others, it was always young Domina. It didn’t change since he was first brought to their home.

That summer, father returned from war with Fuflunius, a new slave for the household. As destiny would have it, Fuflunius was a teacher, too. The girls accepted him as their tutor with no major problems, and so, classes began for all five. Gaia was happy, when Arminius told her how he found the slave.

War had taken Arminius north of Etruria, that year, near his own lands. On his way home, and while trekking near an Etruscan city called Fufluna, someone pleaded from behind a grove of ash trees. He found a man, tied to a wolf, both slowly drowning in a bog. He had obviously been sentenced to death, by whoever left him there. He killed the wolf and helped the man out, and made him his slave. Fuflunius, thankful for his life, swore loyalty to Arminius and whoever his family was. Together, they walked down Etruria and Latium, and Fuflunius never looked back.

As Marcia tried to stand from her bed, someone hit something outside. Like the sound of a plank. Another slam, and broken glass.

Their hearts froze.

It was daytime — why would someone go for a home, clearly abandoned and sacked?

They heard a loud scream. A command. It was Culefius. “Search every corner! As sure as Vatika lives, the girl is somewhere, in here.”

Men were entering from different directions. Arminia ran for her knife, and Fuflunius sprang to get Arminius’s staff. Gaia ran to a corner, overcome with panic, and dropped to her knees. Her heart was about to explode.

“Sweet Juno. Sweet Juno, mother of Rome. Don’t let these men harm my daughters, I beg of you!”

Tacia ran to mother, and Fausta joined in. Arminia put herself in front of Marcia’s bed. Cornelia jumped to the crate, looking for something to fight with.

Someone discovered the stairs to the basement, and several voices joined in, as they ran down. They found one room empty, and the other locked, with voices behind. Trying to break the latch, they joined their efforts as they cursed and laughed. Behind it, Fuflunius set a spear between crates, as if to impale someone with it. He dragged more crates to the door.

The banging got louder, and the door gave way.

Three men jumped in, and one of them, bruised himself on Fuflunius’s spear. He moved it aside, and hit Arminia to the ground. She got back up, but another of the men grabbed her by the neck. She managed to hurt him with her blade, only to have it slapped away from her. The man kept her under his arm, laughing at her energy. More men streamed down the stairway. Fuflunius was kicked unconscious into a corner by a fat Etruscan, who laughed the whole time. Fausta took to running into them, only to be grabbed by her hair.

“What a beauty, we got ourselves here,” one of the men said.

Cornelia tried to intervene, but she was shoved to a side. She bit the man’s hand. In a jolt, he pushed her harder, but she punched him in the groin with something. Taken by surprise, the warrior struck her hard with a staff, and she lost her balance.

Gaia screamed when Culefius showed up. Tears of fury were her only weapon.

“That’s the one,” he said. He pointed at Marcia.

Four men scrambled to the cot, and yanked Marcia up. She heaved in pain. She cried out, when she was flipped onto a shoulder. Carried out like a sack of beets, Culefius locked his eyes on her. He told his men to quickly get out. The one holding Fausta said he wanted the girl as his personal spoils. Since Culefius didn’t reply, the two sisters were dragged out of the room.

Arminia managed to free herself, and jumped on the man pulling Fausta. A warrior, right next to Culefius, turned to her. He kicked her hard. His hobnails went straight into her face, and she flew backwards, stars flying over her forehead. She passed out.

As they went up, the man holding Marcia, fell flat forward. Marcia fell too, by the man’s weight. Another man fell dead, right behind the first one. Arrows pierced them through and through. Culefius ducked and sprang back, between the two dead men. He tried to grab Marcia, but saw a man pulling an arrow. He darted back. Someone was killing them from above, as they kept coming out of the basement.

“Back in the room,” he said. “Grab them, as hostages.” He still couldn’t understand who was killing his warrior-priests, from above ground.

As they ran back down, five mercenaries were there, as if they appeared through a wall. They killed the retreating warriors like flies, an arrow a man. In less than a minute, ten of his fighters were dead.

How the enemy got inside the underground room, without using the stairs, escaped to Culefius. Was there an entrance from the outside?

Seeing that the archers left the staircase, he jumped up, and slid along the empty floor of the atrium. He hid behind a statue, and waited. At least fifty rangers were killing gang members outside, and he desperately looked for an escape route. He dropped down a small corridor between the house and the garden, and crawled his way out to the street. He kept crawling until he was a full block away.

From there, he was able to see the scope of the attack. Twelve of his warrior-priests were dead, in the house, and around the garden. His second-in-command, still alive, was pinned down by someone, a knife to his neck. The gang that controlled the block was being exterminated, too. Out of some thirty bandits, they were down to a man or two. Survivors hid and fled like rats.

Other gangs would hear about it, and seek out revenge on him. Culefius was probably a dead man if he remained in Tusculum. The entire block had been secured by these soldiers, whoever they were.

He cursed, for he lost. He could never beat these men. They were in the hundreds, and much better prepared.

He cursed again. He should have attacked the day before, as his guts were telling him. The cursed girl would have been sacrificed by now, her ashes appeasing the gods. Now, he lost her, and he didn’t even know to whom. Those weren’t Postumius’s forces. They weren’t Latins, either. That much was clear.

From there, he ran to the temple.

Inside the house, hell was upon Marcia, her mother, her sisters, and the slave. But Marcia understood the danger was gone. She struggled to drag herself back inside the room. Soldiers helped her back onto her bunk. Another soldier carried Arminia inside, and placed her on a hide, on the floor.

Arminia and Fuflunius were unconscious. Fausta, little Tacia, and mother were crying in a corner, shaken to the core. Cornelia was in pain, but she was otherwise fine.

One of the soldiers checked them, one by one. After that, he called out to another man. “They are safe.”

Outside in the garden, Axilla was holding a knife to one of the warrior-priests’ neck. The Etruscans’ right arm clung to its body by threads of nerves. Blood gurgled down the limb, onto the grass. He already confessed that Culefius was the mastermind behind this attack. Now, Axilla wanted more.

“Say it,” he said. “One word, and you are free.”

The warrior-priest refused.

“Say you piss on your god Tinh, and you’ll live. Just say it.”

The priest refused again, and Axilla slowly cut his throat. Not one clean cut, but many short, skewed cuts, to cause pain while keeping the man from fainting.

A few minutes later, Gaius Lucretius crossed the garden, and went into the house. The house he, himself built, many years ago.

He went down the stairs, careful to not to get blood on his sandals, from all the corpses laying around.

“Gaia,” he said. “So many years.”

He didn’t call her Lucretia on purpose. He loved her, after all. He was willing to kill, for her. With his daughter, he was always giving much more than he ever received.

===============

IV

===============

A week passed, since the triumph.

Postumius waited outside until the slaves cleaned up the mess around the bed. Inside his domus, Aebutius Elva was recovering from a wound all Rome knew of.

When he was beckoned in, he slowly circled his friend’s bed, and he even refused to take the chair of honor. Instead, he sat on a stool, and waited for Aebutius to speak first. Aebutius’s wife excused herself from the room, after a cordial exchange with the consul.

They looked at each other for what seemed like an eternity. They smiled.

“I could have done better, you know?” Aebutius said. “Hadn’t he lost balance on his stupid horse, I would have had him on my spear. Like a fish.”

“Of course, my friend. And you look ready for another round like that. Too bad we killed Mamilius, in the end.”

They laughed, but three slaves jumped to aid the man, when laughter turned into cough and pain. Laughing and being wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, didn’t go well together.

But Aebutius kept high spirits. This was good. They day they walked him through the streets, confined to his enormous litter, he didn’t look so well. He seemed angry. He seemed distant.

But now, his strength was coming back, by the day.

“Did you give those titles back?” asked Aebutius.

“Yes, of course. As soon as the bulls were sacrificed.”

“So, back to being consul, aye?”

“Indeed,” Postumius replied. “Six more months…”

“Aye. With Verginius…”

“Yes.”

Aebutius glanced towards his wife, outside the room. Keeping out of the consul’s view, she was signaling something. She pointed at her own belly.

“Oh, by Mars,” Aebutius said. “Forgive my manners, Postumius. I forgot to ask… How is your wife? How is that child coming along?” He pointed to a slave, to bring wine.

“Oh, very well, indeed. Thank you, thank you! Two more months for the baby.”

“Two months, aye?” Aebutius said. “I was born in summer, too.”

Silence ensued, and both men were clearly struggling for words. The slave brought wine, and served it. Postumius was known to enjoy good wine, and he praised it with a nod.

“Listen. I don’t know if the time is right, for me to ask you this, my friend,” Postumius said after a while.

“Speak your mind, consul,” Aebutius replied.

“Great. Would you be willing to—” He was looking for the right word.

“Go into politics, aye?”

“I didn’t mean, as in becoming a politician—”

“Aye, consul. Here we are,” Aebutius said. It seemed strange that, on the battlefield, Postumius was so certain, so sure of his every step, yet here, he was bumbling through his sentences. “Let me say a thing or two. If I may.”

“By Jupiter. Of course you may.”

“I am a soldier. This, you know well. I would be bored to death, with speeches in that big room. On the other hand, I am also a man of the people. This, you know, too. I use simple words.”

Postumius nodded.

“However, I will say this. If you need me, to fill a gap, because of some political reason, I will do it. If it is for the good of Rome, by Mars, I shall do it. Postulate me, and set up the floor. I will be at your disposition, but there is two things I will not do.”

He paused for a moment. “First. I will not run for the office. You prepare the floor, fine by me. But I won’t be pushing, campaigning, or vying for supporters. And do not announce me before the Lupinalias. Or the Kalends of that month, at earliest. I would like to be at the plebeian games, without being seen, as one of the Senate.”

Postumius nodded again.

“Second. I will do this once. Once only. I have no politics in my mind, and Mars is my witness, I envy none of your lives.”

“Excellent! We— I have been talking lately, and there is people who agree, Appius Claudius should be postulating himself for the consulate, this year. There is, however, people who do not agree with it.”

“Aye,” said Aebutius. “You among them, consul.”

“Correct. I agree with your two postulations, my friend. However, we think you will be forced to make your posture known, before that date. The plebeian games are late in the year, and Lupinalia is merely two months before elections. But, let us see about that. We could handle it.”

“Is Claudius really so strong, this year?”

“I am afraid, he is,” Postumius said. “He invested heavily in lands, recently, and he intends to bring tribe members to the city, to have their voices heard.”

“Aye… their voices heard,” Aebutius said. Sarcasm.

“Well. I shall leave—”

A slave called from outside the home. Aebutius’s wife walked out to meet him, as her husband was not fond of being seen in bed, and in bandages. Least of all, by gossiping slaves from other politician’s homes.

She returned to Aebutius, just as Postumius readied to leave.

“Husband, and consul Postumius,” she said. “A slave from the house of consul Verginius, with urgent news.”

“Tell him in!”

The slave appeared through the door, keeping himself at the threshold. “Masters,” he said.

“Speak, by Mars!” If there was one thing Aebutius hated, it was making things slower than they normally were. Sleeping, running, eating, even killing or getting killed. There was a speed to everything, already set by nature. Why slow things on purpose?

“Gaius Papirius, the Pontifex Maximus, has died.”

# # # # #