You spend the day following Benayah, which is sorta like watching over the poor district. Close enough to count, you figure.
You had started the afternoon hanging around outside Cornelius’s tenement, unsure what exactly to do. Guard duty is mind-bendingly boring anyway, and you weren’t that clear on who you were guarding or what you were guarding them from. You ended up prowling about, looking for trouble. People steered clear of you, like you were in one of those “brotherhood of the crossroads” gangs. You hate it when people mistake you for someone trying to hurt them, rather than help. People should always feel safer when someone young and strong is around. You hate that the world is broken, and you can’t wait for a chance to prove your good intentions. You’ll show them. You’ll save them, and then they’ll be happy to see you around. Soon.
The day drags on. The sun crawls between gaps in laundry strung overhead and faded cloth awnings. Vendors clutter the street. They perch on old barrels, cheap goods scattered over crates before them, hawking their wares loudly. The Emperor may have declared a week-long holiday, but that means little down in the slums. These people still have to pay their rent.
You shoulder in behind a loud, greasy-haired man to claim a free patch of shade against a wall. People watch you from the corners of their eyes as they pass, unwilling to turn their heads. Women pretend not to see you. The greasy-haired man glares at you, upset you’re driving away customers. But he eyes your arms, your shoulders, and decides against saying anything. Just keeps scowling at you every time the sun shifts.
You should be doing something. This helps no one. Your impatience begins to itch. So when you see Benayah–Cornelius’s young friend from last night with the Jewish name and half-Jewish features–stepping out of the tenement, you decide to see what he’s up to.
He stops first at a grain dispensary. The lines are long–last month Pulcher, the Curator of Grain, declared that the grain doles would be distributed weekly rather than monthly for the rest of the season. The allotments are quartered, of course, so the only effect is to force the poor to quadruple the time they wait in queue each month. They have to claim new dole tokens at the administrative office weekly as well. Your father approved, saying it reduced how much time the poor have available to stir up trouble. But he’s a Paullus man, he’s practically required to defend him. The outrage it caused doesn’t seem worth it to you. Especially coming just a few weeks after the decree of half-rations for the rest of the year. But then, you aren’t a senator, what would you know?
Benayah waits in line for half an hour under an icon of Ceres. He attempts conversation with nearby men, but they ignore him. When he reaches the head of the queue he gives his token to a secretary guarded by four Praetorians. The secretary frowns at Benayah, peering at his features. One of the Praetorians steps forward, glowering at the Jew. You tense as you watch, waiting for direction from the gods.
A round of protestations and pleas follows, ending with the secretary scrupulously examining the small square of stamped pottery. Finally he waves the guard back, marks his records with distaste, and doles out the standard ten pounds of grain to Benayah.
Not enough to live on in any case.
Benayah takes the grain back to his tenement, hands it to a friend or family member you don’t recognize, and then turns back into the city. He stops at a crossroads and then a market, both known as places for laborers to find work. In both cases he is ignored by the overseers. Their eyes pass right over him, as if he’s a hole in the world. He’s left standing with the crippled who are still too stubborn to beg, their pride greater than their hunger. Finally Benayah gives up and moves on.
You almost feel sorry for him, but what does he expect? He could at least use a Roman name to throw people off. Calling himself Benayah, like he’s proud of his heritage or something, is asking for trouble. It doesn’t matter that he’s not personally to blame. He has a choice as to how he presents himself in Rome. What kind of idiot willingly associates themselves with the people who resurrected the Horrors?
Jewish agents must’ve searched for decades in those charred ruins. Hundreds of sages surely went slowly mad, deciphering broken syllables scrawled on tanned strips of human skin. Their determination to find the weapon Rome so feared spilled into fanaticism. It was their only hope. They’d already learned, in the first uprising, that their own magics of undeath weren’t enough. They needed more than zombies and righteous zeal. They needed the rituals of Carthage.
Rome had annihilated Carthage three hundred years prior, forever purging the world of their demonic magic. For nearly a century the two great powers had battled, light against dark, the Healers against the Despoilers. When Rome finally breached those living walls they did not rest until the stain upon the world had been wiped out entirely. Every person and animal in the city was slaughtered, every structure destroyed, and the whole city doused in oil and put to the torch. Carthage burned for three weeks, and the pillar of smoke could be seen as far away as Athens. The city was left uninhabited, a monument to the wages of abomination. Every year a legion passed through to enforce the decree of desolation. Never again would humans sacrifice their lovers and their children to bring Horror into the world.
Until the third Jewish Revolt.
Until one day you trudged on patrol through Jerusalem, and your first warning came as a croaked screech behind you. That sound would become seared into your mind. Soon you’d be able to pick it out even in a storm of shrieks. You lived in dread of that strangled cry. In your dreams it comes from your throat as often as not.
Shouts of warning. At your back, Numa twisted under unseen forces. He must’ve touched something, maybe his foot had brushed a fetish hidden among street rubbish. You spun as his bones snapped, saw his arm swell in an eyeblink into a cloven cudgel. His body bloated, his clothes split. Armor snapped at the joints and clattered to what had been feet. He reared up, mouth gaping wide, screaming without sound. When you hacked at his head, his skull burst open like an overripe pimple, red-flecked pus raining over you. It was too late, the head wasn’t necessary anymore. It was a mercy though–without the head it no longer looked like Numa shrieking in agony.
The Horror lashed out with the cloven arm. Your ribs cracked as the blow lifted you from the ground and flung you a hundred feet. For an instant in the air, you remember feeling grateful. Relieved that it was Numa rather than you. It was a sickening gratitude. Then the cobblestones harshly welcomed your return.
Through a haze of pain and shame you saw Pontius strike. A lunging chasm of jagged hunger met him where a sternum should be, the Horror’s ribcage opening like a clamshell hinged at the spine. No flesh or lungs or heart, just a gaping mouth and three rows of razor teeth, saliva-strung. Pontius screamed as it crunched over his arm. You struggled to your feet, gasping for breath. Charged back in. The rest of the squad hacked and stabbed at the Horror that had been Numa from all sides. It still had his crescent-moon scar left of the navel, now stretched out into a puckered half-equator, and you don’t know why that’s what brought up the bile you gagged down.
Where does one strike a Horror like this? You thrust your sword into a pallid hide to no effect. Pontius thrashed on his knees, clutching a jagged, gushing stump. He slicked the cobblestones underfoot, rammed blindly against you. You spun on him, just long enough to grab his spaulders and wrench him out of the fighting, ignoring his broken, animal howling. As you turned back another partially-devoured Legionnaire spilled onto the ground. A trunk of an arm swung, you barely ducked under your death. After that it was all frantic yelling and blood flying. Ripping teeth and battering limbs. Only two of you survived.
That is what Benayah expects people to forget, as he parades around the city using his Jewish name. Three hundred years of stories of boogey monsters told to Rome’s children, brought back into horrendous reality. Demons walking the earth. Rome could never forgive that. How long until the furnaces of Carthage were rebuilt in Jerusalem? Until children were fed into them like cordwood, and great Moloch sat athrone his mountain of flesh? Never again.
Benayah will claim his people would never have gone that far. The Carthaginians had once claimed that too.
Under the burning sun’s reproachful glare Benayah approaches another labor market. A less reputable one. Here the overseers curse him directly. They snarl, one spits at his feet, and the grim-faced men looking for work turn their attentions to him. They say nothing, but their dark eyes and set jaws speak for them. They advance on him like a gathering storm.
Benayah flees their wrath. You follow him to the outskirts of the Forum. The streets grow crowded, but not raucous. The city is sullen. No one turns to speak with vendors or passing acquaintances. Benayah is no exception. He never so much as glances in your direction.
You pull up short when he stops at a side-door of the House of the Vestals, Rome’s holy healers, and knocks on it. You nearly yelp when the guard lets him in with a bored look. You stand in the shade a block away, dumbfounded.
There’s no way he can afford a healing. And he certainly isn’t there for work. No culture treasures anything as jealously and secretly as their magical arts. When a legion takes the field, each cohort’s healers have a personal squad as dedicated bodyguards. The most important bodyguard is the one with the long knife, who cannot pick up his shield or his sword while his healer still breathes. His only duty is to judge when the enemy is too close, and ensure that the healer doesn’t fall into enemy hands alive. A half-Jew from the slums wouldn’t be trusted for even the most basic labor in the House. So what is he there for?
Maybe you can follow him in, under the pretense of getting the shallow cut on your hip fixed. But it’s so minor you’ve almost forgotten about it already, and you don’t have any coin to spare.
You wait. You grow uncomfortable. Eyes keep sliding to you, wondering what you’re doing here. You stalk down the street, spinning several times to catch anyone following you. You see nothing. You pace back. The gods begin to wake within you, displeased with the hours you’ve squandered.
This is a waste of time, and staying out in the open too long is dangerous. You should be helping people. You should be in the slums at least, as you’d promised. Finally you stride up to the side door Benayah disappeared into and raise your fist. Before you can bang on the wood a bolt slides and the door swings open. Benayah steps half out, draws up short, looks up at you with startled eyes.
You take an involuntary step back. Benayah looks diminished. A slick sheen covers his skin, his lips draw tight and pale. A tight splint holds his arm; he cradles it in a sling stained with fresh blood. For a moment you gape, confused. His arm was fine when he entered the House half an hour ago.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I… was looking for you,” you reply, because you’re an awful liar and you’re sick of failing at it. “I heard you might be here.”
“You found me. What do you want?” Benayah raises his chin defiantly, like you’re here to rob him or something. You’re sick of everyone acting like you’re a thug. He doesn’t even have anything worth taking!
And finally you realize. In the legion, your healers kept prisoners of war to transfer wounds into. The legions traveled with entire battalions of defeated fighters in chains, slowly starving to death. They were pulled into the rear of every battle. As the Roman secondary lines advanced to relieve the front line, the front line troops would drag their wounded back to the surgery line. Prisoners of war were fed to the healers en masse, hacked to death by the transferred wounds. The rejuvenated legionaries became the new second line and the process would repeat. In this way the Romans ground down all opposition under an unrelenting assault. As long as discipline was maintained and the troops kept cycling, victory was inevitable.
Within the city there were few prisoners of war. Slaves all belonged to someone, and weren’t parted with cheaply. But the poor… the poor Rome had in abundance. More than enough to absorb the illnesses and injuries of the rich. Benayah had lain strapped to a table, feeling his bones break, watching his flesh tear. Weighing each injury against a paltry measure of silver.
The anger inside you cuts like jagged glass. He’s a Jew. You shouldn’t be this distraught, after what his people did.
He’s a fellow man, the gods whisper. And he hurts. They all hurt.
Now he thinks you’ve come here to take that silver. He stands up to you. His head barely comes to your chin, he’s weak from injury, his arm’s in a sling. And he’s standing up to you, because he won’t let you take that money without a fight. The jagged glass grinds in your chest.
“Hey, look, I just wanted to know about Eydis,” you say, backing off a step. It’s partly true, which should make it more convincing. Since last morning, when she roused the gods with her words, you’ve been unable to shake the feeling she knows something you don’t. That she’s a better person. The gods always take her side, and you want to know why they favor her. But she can’t seem to stand the sight of you. “What can I do to show her I’m not such a bad guy?”
Benayah sighs wearily, and moves past you into the street. “How about you try not being such a bad guy? Maybe treat her like a person?”
The words are a slap in the face. You feel heat rise to your cheeks. “What the hell do you know about being a good or bad guy?” you spit. “You’ve never been surrounded by a city trying to kill you. You haven’t spent months waiting for death to erupt from any thing at any time. You want to know the difference between good and bad? Try joining the legion. Try fighting for the good of your fellow man, and see if that clears anything up.”
Benayah gives you a sidelong glance. “Fine, whatever,” he answers.
You do your best to stem rising frustration. Benayah’s grimace reminds you that he’s terse because he’s in pain. “And what do you mean ‘treat her like a person’?” you ask. “Of course she’s a person. I’m treating her exactly like one treats a person!”
Benayah just shakes his head. “I feel sorry for Eydis already.”
“Screw you.” You storm off, fists clenched, with a gale rising inside you. There’s something wrong with both of them. And it’s leaking into you. You can’t escape this feeling, like a splinter under your skin, that they can see where the flaw in the world is. If they’d just tell you, maybe something could be done about it. Instead they do nothing.
You will act. You must be the spark.
And then they’ll shake off their complacency? They’ll act as well?
But the gods don’t answer. You stalk back to the Suburra, alone with your frustrations.
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First line of next week’s chapter: It was a bizarre list the wizard’s translator gave me, and I wondered how they’d come across half these items in the barbarian lands.
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Word-count of chapter 12 deleted content: 671