You lean against a tenement in the Suburra district. A thick sky darkens above. You hold bread in your hands. Ultimately, this is what everything comes down to, isn’t it? Everything must consume to live.
You grip a chunk of bread in your fingers and tear it loose. Crumbs scatter. You lift it to your mouth, place it on your tongue. It no longer tastes of anything. You chew out of compulsion. Swallow. Taking the bread into yourself. It becomes a part of you, you swell to accommodate it.
An animal finding itself with an abundance of food will gorge itself against the onrushing future. When the lands around Rome were ripe for the harvest, Rome swallowed them. She bloated with their wealth, their food. Her paved gullets gulped deep.
Your stomach strains, and you rip off another bread chunk. Now food is scarce. The fat that was put on in good times is shed. The living city of Rome has fat too. It sheds its poor. They are the excess created by overabundance. They are no longer needed.
A girl looks up at you with hungry eyes. She says nothing, only watches. You extend your hand, holding out the bit of loaf. She reaches for it, and though it hurts you, you release the chunk into her hands. It disappears into her mouth without a sound. She chews and swallows quickly, and that piece of bread is no more.
She will need more. Every day of her life. No one can ever be sated. Life is unending consumption.
“They killed Severus,” you overhear the girl’s nearby caretaker say. She doesn’t look old enough to be the mother–maybe an older sister? She stands with two other women to one side of the street, not quite on the sidewalk.
“Who?” asks her taller friend. They huddle against the descending twilight.
“The Praetorians. He just wanted his allotment of grain. They cut him down like a dog.”
You give the girl another piece of bread, and another. It hurts a bit less each time. A thin boy notices, and patters to your side. Hunger is etched in his face. You give him bread too. This is your last loaf. It’s not enough for everyone. Nothing will ever be enough for everyone.
You realize you cannot eat in good conscience. Not when there are so many starving. You should never eat again, for there is so much unmet hunger, and you can’t eat while others starve.
“Gods. Couldn’t he wait a few hours? There’ll be food here soon.”
“Could you wait? What did you give up for the handful of nuts I saw you with?”
But you know you’ll eat tomorrow anyway. And the next day. And every day thereafter, until you die. You rip the remaining bread in half, give a piece to each child, and watch them run off. That loaf, at least, is their responsibility now. You can’t be blamed for it any longer.
“It wasn’t worth his life,” came the eventual reply.
“What wasn’t worth whose life?” a new voice asks. This one male. The third woman of the group still hasn’t said a word. She holds her head bowed and her shoulders tensed, as if awaiting a blow.
“Severus. The Praetorians killed him at the dispensary.”
A sharp wail splits the air. The girl’s caretaker snatched the half-loaf you gave the child. The woman parcels out the bread among the adults, before handing back the stripped crust to the girl. She stares at it with welling eyes, then bursts into wet sobs.
Anger surges inside you. You smother it down. It’s not your responsibility anymore. The girl has learned. If you stomp over there and bully the adults into returning the bread, you’re no better than them. What lesson will that teach the girl? Strive to be the biggest person around? You can’t just redistribute food at your whim, on authority of your greater capacity for violence.
That is the imperative of gods. You are our vessel. It is your right.
Oh, great, now the gods are back. Just in time to jab you into compliance. They can go fuck themselves.
Can you watch and do nothing?
Tears leak down the girl’s dirty cheeks, hardening into dark smears. She would have been better off if you hadn’t given her the loaf. Everything you do makes things worse. Rivulets carve a slow path towards her chin.
The girl’s caretaker gives her a light smack.
“Quit your bitching,” she says. “None of us have enough.”
You’re moving now. You don’t remember deciding to, but you’re striding toward the group with clenched fists, grinding your teeth. How can people be such assholes?
“Fucking Praetorians,” says the man. “I couldn’t get grain either. I left when the crowd started getting ugly. The city’s churning like a sour stomach.”
The silent woman looks like she’s trying to disappear into the cracks between paving stones.
All four of them startle when you step to the girl’s caretaker and snap the hunk of bread from her hands.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” you demand. “You’re just going to take food from a hungry child? And eat it in front of her?”
The woman’s brow furrows in anger. “What do you care? It’s not your kid.” She tenses, preparing for your attack. She thinks you’re as bad as her. “She can’t eat it all anyway.”
“That doesn’t give you the right to take it from her.” You point at the man. “Give me your piece. Now.”
The man hesitates, clutching his part of the loaf. He backs away and stumbles over the lip of the sidewalk. You grab the bread from him as he flails, letting him fall on his ass. Then you turn and hand both reclaimed pieces to the little girl. You hold your breath, listening for sudden movement, focusing on your peripheral vision. You aren’t the only person who keeps a hidden weapon on them, especially in this neighborhood.
The girl stares up at you with wide eyes, and bursts into squeals of terror. She runs into her caretaker, wrapping both arms around one leg and burying her face in her dress. Sobs escape from the fabric.
“You see what you did?” the woman asks.
You drop the bread in disgust and stalk away. Everything you do makes things worse.
The street grows crowded, as residents return from further in the city or descend from their apartments. The sky shades deeper into violet, the first torches are struck, and still no food has arrived. A group grows tired of waiting on their benefactors and pulls the feasting tables from where they’ve been stashed in an alley.
You watch in amazement. It astounds you how easily they coordinate on simple, spontaneous actions. One man points to the tables, says a few words, and moves to pick up a corner. His friends instinctively follow him. Is it his bearing? Has he endured some trial to gain their deference? Or are people just naturally attracted to easy tasks that are showy but ineffectual? The tables are set down in the street in mimicry of the past two nights. They stand as bare islands within the incoming tide of people. Their emptiness sticks out like a sore, giving mute testimony of neglect. Mutterings begin among the crowd.
A few blocks down Eydis turns onto the street, returning to the Suburra for the night. You almost act on your first instinct to approach her. But she doesn’t like you. There’s nothing you can say that will change that, and pressing the issue will make it worse. You’ll just seem more and more like a creep. It’s fine if some people don’t like you. You can’t let that bug you. Dammit though, she’s got you all wrong.
“Hey Eydis!” A hunched old woman by one of the tables calls out. “What’s going on in the rich quarters? We got no food, what’s the delay?”
“I don’t know. Everything was fine there. Their tables were already loaded when I left.”
The old woman mutters a curse. You aren’t the only one to overhear this. A chill sweeps down the street as expectant eyes grow hard with anger. Mutters rise to a low boil, a foam of discontent lapping at the island tables.
The first stars pierce the gloaming. Still no procession of slaves arrives, loaded down with poor produce and old bread. No barrels of rejected wine. No servers to sing the praises of the patriarch who provided this shoddy bounty. You see the fangs of hunger as they settle themselves deep into the Suburra. You feel the venom of impossible desire coursing into the crowd. You see anxiety catching at its edges.
The large double-doors to a mountainous tenement at your right creak open. Cornelius steps out, emerging from his urban stronghold with the usual retinue of friends in tow. Benayah is among them, haggard, arm still in a sling.
The collected gaze of the mob shifts to Cornelius’s group in a cascade of nudges and whispers. Almost as a single mass, the living street moves to surround Cornelius and his friends. Hungry bodies flock to them, demanding answers. You move with the flow, not really hearing Cornelius’s confused protests. You scan the crowd, judging distance, edging closer to Cornelius. You can spring forward if this gets violent and rip an attacker away from him within a second. You hope Cornelius will have the sense to run. If the mob moves in any great number the sheer press of bodies will–
You realize you’re doing it again. You’re inserting yourself into the situation, when it had been made very clear your help wasn’t wanted. It’s a damned instinct.
You’re doing nothing wrong. You must defend the weak.
Yeah, because that worked so well last time.
“…no clue why the delay!” Cornelius says, holding up both hands. You notice he’s missing his usual wine cup, and looks worse for it. “They’ll be here soon, just give ‘em time.”
“No more lies!” someone yells. “You’re a landlord, you know the great men!”
“Aw, come on! They wouldn’t give me the time of day! I got nothing to do with any of this, I just maintain the building. Barely got more’n any of you.”
“Can’t we help until the food arrives?” Benayah asks. You’ve pushed to the crowd’s inner edge, close enough to make out Benayah’s unraised voice, because you don’t have the sense to leave when you aren’t wanted. “What about the sack of grain we got from the mercenary?” He nods in your direction and for a moment you’re confused, because you’re not a mercenary. You’re a legionnaire, down on his luck.
The crowd follows Benayah’s nod. The world pauses, all sound evaporates into silence, and for a sickening heartbeat every eye in the city is trained on you. You stand at the axis of universal regard, human attention coming from every side, the gods’ gaze bearing down from above. Then attention shifts back to Cornelius and the world continues as if nothing happened.
“Well, that’s a sticking point there,” he answers. “It’s kinda gone. I sent it out today to be milled and baked. Not as good as a pig, but at least it’d be fresh, ya know? But, uh… it was confiscated. Emergency powers.” The crowd grows still at this, causing his next words to echo. “Just temporarily though! The army needs it, you see. To feed our fightin’ men. Keep the barbarians back.”
“Bullshit,” you mutter, the word slipping out before you can consider it. The sentiment ripples outward, riding a crest of whispers. You’re suddenly grateful Benayah labeled you a mercenary rather than a legionnaire. Cornelius glances backwards, finally weighing a retreat to the safety of his tenement.
“They aren’t coming,” a wavering voice speaks up. It’s the silent woman from before, who’d stood with the girl’s caretaker. She’s finally found her voice, squeaking out from a throat trying to crush it. “I work in the grain mills. There was an incident at the Colosseum today. They’d stocked two days of bread there… and then all of it was eaten by noon.” Urgent shushes quiet the street, allowing her voice to carry farther. “The emperor’s men pulled food from the feast allotments. The emperor refused to let his guests go hungry.” Several gasps escape the crowd. The Colosseum can hold eighty thousand “guests” of the emperor at once. “It ran out in two hours. They pulled more. They sent out men to buy up food in the markets, only there’s nothing left to buy. We’ve been milling flour like crazy, but…”
The street has fallen silent again. Her voice strains, but pushes on.
“But there isn’t enough wheat. Every private warehouse is empty. In my last two hours we ground grain taken from the public dispensaries. The dispensaries! It’s all that’s left. And they’re taking it for the emperor’s Games. Anything leftover is going to the rich quarters. We… we gotta make do on our own.”
In the failing light the tenements rising on all sides feel more like confining walls than dwellings. They enclose the crowd with the stillness of a tomb. The last stains of color bleed from the sky. Only the occasional crackle of a torch can be heard.
Eventually a single quiet statement. “We’ll starve.” It hangs in the air. You don’t see who said it.
“No,” a young man speaks, his voice lacking conviction. “No, they wouldn’t do that. Someone’s coming. We just have to wait.” He looks to be in his mid-teens. He could have been you ten years ago.
Bitter laughter cracks the air. Eydis perches on a table edge, the picture of mocking contempt. It glimmers in her eyes.
“Oh, they must love you! So trusting, so obedient. Will you sign up to be one of their soldier boys, and put that obedience to use? Making sure the food always gets to the worthies that deserve it?”
“They’re coming,” he insists. “No Roman will ever lack enough bread to live, no matter how poor. They promised.”
“You’ll starve,” Eydis spits. Mutterings stir to life again. Blacker in tone.
A man with a sword never starves.
“What?” A sallow-skinned man with thinning hair peers at you. “What did you say?”
You didn’t realize you’d spoken. The words come again, unbidden, louder. “A man with a sword never starves.”
You hate that saying, because it accepts that the world is broken. You joined the legion to defy that sentiment. You would help ensure that people could keep what they created. You would stop the swords of the rapacious. Violence would not prevail.
Much later you realized your actions were another affirmation. Men with swords would take what they wanted, unless other men with swords stopped them. You could choose which side to fight for, but you couldn’t change the nature of the world. You couldn’t fix the ultimate flaw. The final law was always the application of violence.
It seems not even the gods can change that aspect of reality. You wonder if they created the world to run on these gladiatorial rules, or if they’re just as constrained by them as men are. Was this choice or necessity?
The sallow man snorts. “Well that’s helpful. The Praetorians have the swords. The rich have the Praetorians. We have nothing.”
“We are the sword,” you say. “All of us, together. The poor outnumber the Praetorians one-hundred-to-one. Even if only a quarter can fight, we still overwhelm them. There is no city without us. We are the blade held over the patricians’ heads.”
Heads nod. Murmurs surface, and ripple outward. The sallow man narrows his eyes. “You don’t have all the poor. You have a portion of the Suburra district. You’re doomed.” Hisses chase his words. He casts a harried glance around, over raised shoulders.
Bring them food. End the wailing of the children.
“We aren’t going to fight all the Praetorians,” you reply. “Only those patrolling a single feasting square, and only if they refuse us food. I’ve been to the rich feasts, I’ve seen how much they have. They squander it, spilling food onto the ground. They’ll eat half a portion and discard the rest. There’s more than enough for all of us to eat, and to take back to our families after. There’s no reason for anyone to go hungry.”
“So, what, you’re going to lead a charge up the hills? Bring back riches for the glory of the Suburra?”
Why not? The rich don’t give a damn about the people here. They’ll ignore the whole stinking mess until they’re forced to acknowledge it. An unnatural gnawing hunger in your guts drives you on. The same hunger that haunts the faces around you.
“Yeah,” you say. “Fuck it, someone has to. Anyone who wants to eat, I know where there’s more food than you can carry. All you have to do is reach out and take it.” You turn to the sallow man pointedly. “Unless you want to lead us?”
He throws you a sour look, sulking back a step. Hungry, young faces within the crowd approach, jaws set and heads held high.
An old man butts in, something desperate shining in his sunken eyes. “You can’t! There ain’t no way you can fight ‘em in the city. Even a few of ‘em. Every street’s a narrow pass. You can’t bring our numbers to bear.”
You glare scorn at him. What does he know?
“No, you are so wrong. The opposite is true. I was in Jerusalem.” You remember that cursed city. You remember pursuing armed gangs down cramped alleys, and stones raining down on you from roofs forty feet up, and angry men silently spilling from doorways behind you. You remember the screams of a massacre one street over, the roar of a Horror, shouts begging for reinforcements. There was no way to get to them. You were ten yards away, and it might as well have been ten miles for all the buildings and crooked streets that snaked everywhere but where you needed to be.
“I was in Jerusalem,” you repeat. “The city is no place for a civilized army. The streets and alleys are our natural domain. We will drown them. We will tear them to pieces!”
“Damn straight!” A yell from the crowd. Several affirming whoops follow it. At least one of them came from Cornelius’s entourage.
“Well I’m not going,” mutters the sallow man. “I don’t want to die today.”
You regard him, a bony scarecrow body, broken of will. Unwilling to risk anything to better his life. Your mouth twists into a sharp frown.
“Starve then. Take your slow, miserable death.” Your voice rises steadily, fueled by growing anger. “Once you’re too weak and sick to fight you can regret your life, and die in a gutter. The rest of us still have some damned Roman pride.” Shouts of approval spur you on. You push past the sallow man. The gods guide your feet. You step up onto a table and find Cornelius in the crowd. Lock eyes with him. He gives you a slight nod. “Are you with me?” you shout.
“Aye, I’m with you. Me and my crew!”
You scan the myriad faces before you. You find the man who roused his group into setting up the feasting tables, his arms crossed over his chest grimly. You aren’t sure about him, but the gods push you. You point him out, he raises his chin to meet you. “And how about you? Are you with us?”
“Fuckin’ right I am,” he calls back, baring his teeth and lifting a clenched fist. “Ain’t no one taking the Suburra’s food without a fight!”
You spread your arms wide to take in everyone in the streets and shout, “We will not starve tonight!”
A cheer rises. The faces around you, still dirty, still harrowed, now show something new as well. Something like anger. Something like fear. Something that goes beyond desperation. A thing you recognize as ferocious hope. Approval from the gods surges through your veins. Your blood sings their exultation.
This is it. This is how it begins.
“Get your knives, get your clubs. Gather your family and your friends. In half an hour, we march up Quirinal Hill!”
“What do you mean you aren’t coming?”
Eydis remains perched on the bare table, regarding you with venomous eyes. You decided to approach her after all, in the flurry of preparatory action. She spat out her intention to stay before you’d even said a word. You aren’t sure if you’re relieved or disappointed. You weren’t going to insult her by telling her not to come, yet you’re surprised she isn’t even considering it. You expected someone with that much passion burning inside to jump at the chance. These may not be her people, but she’d been protective of them yesterday. Her family by choice, she’d said. Or something like it.
“I can’t risk myself anymore, I’ve got something far too important to take care of now.”
You blink at her in surprise. “You’re pregnant?”
She sneers. “Oh, yes, that’s the only important thing a woman could ever take part in. Obviously.”
“Fine, keep it secret. Like I give a damn. We’ll do fine without you.”
“I’m sure you will. Benayah looks like he can’t wait to get started. I can’t believe he bought every word.”
You glance over your shoulder to spot the young Jewish man approaching. He clutches a kitchen knife in his good hand. His face is set in a stony scowl. You groan at the sight.
“What the hell is he doing? With a broken arm he’ll just be in the way.”
“Guess that’s your problem now. Isn’t that what you signed up for?”
You don’t answer. You don’t need to answer. The gods are with you, and they will lead you where you need to be.
You stride at the head of a winding serpent of humanity. Its scales glisten gold and silver with torchlight and blades. You’ve drawn your dagger as well. There’s no point in hiding the weapons; the mob’s intentions are clear. The serpent advances with its fangs bared.
It swells as it slips through the Suburra’s streets. At every crossroads a teeming desolation of would-be revelers broods. They groan after food diverted to weightier mouths. With a flurry of shouts and queries the able-bodied among them are swallowed up by the serpent, joining its turbulent flesh. The children and elderly walk with them as far as they can, calling encouragement. Main streets thick with the disaffected lie denuded in your passing, harvested for mass. Soon, when you look back, you can’t see the end of the serpent’s tail. It’s lost among the twisting avenues.
The transition from slum is rapid once you turn up-slope. Within a couple blocks the buildings look better cared for and sturdier. No lines of laundry run between them. They’re topped with respectable roofs at the legal height, rather than overbuilt with two more floors of wooden hovels. These are apartments, rather than tenements.
Each one stands dark. Their windows glower down at you, hundreds of black pupils, as you slither beneath. When you pass you fear they weep rivers of Praetorian Guard behind you, but you don’t turn around. With the serpent at your back, you are safer. Surely someone would raise an alarm.
You lead the serpent around a corner and finally spy your objective. The glow of torches, the murmur of conversation, the plucking of harps and piping of flutes. Two dozen paces distant. Your stomach stiffens. You square your shoulders and lead on. The air grows tighter as more of the mob spills around the corner and spots their prey, slips into breathless silence.
Two Praetorians stand at the edge of the light with their backs to you, surveying the festivities for troublemakers. They don’t wear armor or carry javelins. Neither are needed for this sort of light duty in the wealthier hills. They must feel the thickening of the air, or hear the hiss of anticipation behind them, because they turn around before you’ve crossed a quarter of the distance. Immediately they unsling the small half-shields on their backs and draw swords. Your torches aren’t yet enough to drive away the lurching shadows hiding their faces. You tighten your grip on your dagger.
One of them growls an order you can’t make out. The other snaps about and rushes back to the crowd, raising an alarm. The music falters and dies, as shocked faces turn first to the Praetorian, and then down to the mass of poverty slithering up the hill. Shouts of surprise, then fear. The slaves bolt first, swift and silent, unencumbered by disbelief or overindulgence.
Then an eruption of motion as stuffed bodies struggle to rise, to run, while personal guards rush to shield them. You slow your pace, giving them more time to flee. It won’t be enough. You’re almost upon them, and you can’t stop this beast now.
“Halt!” barks the Praetorian before you, edging back as he says it, shield raised. You can barely hear him over the rising clamor. “You will halt!”
“Throw down your weapon or die!” you shout back, the unheeding pressure at your back propelling you forward. Three paces. You train your focus on his sword-hand, watching for the lunge coming soon. Coming now.
The sword drops to the cobblestones, the shield follows it, and the Praetorian raises open hands. You sweep past him. He grunts and wheezes as men shove him aside or strike him in passing. You hope he avoids being trampled.
Before you, pandemonium. Tables lurch as fleeing revelers jostle past their neighbors, overturning cups and spilling plates to the ground. You stalk up behind the second Praetorian, stepping forward with your free hand outstretched. He spins, too late.
You grab his sword arm at the wrist and twist it down as he turns. He lunges into you shoulder-first and swings his shield around in an awkward punch. His sword hand slips in your grip, nearly free, but you hesitate. You don’t want to stab him.
And then the mob is on him, ripping the shield from his hands, pummeling him with coshes and cudgels. He drops under a flurry of kicks. You tuck your dagger into your belt and scoop up his sword. The moment it’s in your hands you feel safer.
You straighten as the body of the serpent flows past you, crashes against the fleeing citizens of the Quirinal district. Yells turn to frantic shrieks, as the Suburra rabble rips food from struggling hands. Coin purses are torn from their owners, small silver rounds tumbling underfoot. Paid guards haul their charges by the arms, or crack heads with leather-bound truncheons. They fall in turn, beneath knives and clubs.
“Stop!” you shout, but no one listens to you. You shove into the fray, grabbing collars, yanking shoulders. After one particularly rough jerk you hear a yelp and a woman darts away, holding her dress above her shins as she runs. Thwarted, angry eyes turn on you.
“Don’t waste your time!” you tell them. “Eat some damn food!” You turn away, using the movement to hide the trembling in your legs. After two steps without being stabbed in the back, you let out your breath. You jostle your way to a table and vault onto it.
You fill your lungs, then shout so loudly it hurts, “Let them flee! Let the cowards run, and tell their friends we’re coming!”
Several tangled scrums snap loose at your shout, but just as many rage on undeterred. When a guard drops a swarm plunges after him, stripping him of anything of value. The desperation hasn’t abated in the least, because there isn’t nearly enough. The serpent has grown too large. The last scraps of food are scoured from the tables, and still men and women flood in from downhill.
You promised them no one in Suburra would starve tonight. The mob coils ever tighter into the square, expecting release from their hunger. There is too much fury pressing in around you. It’s flaring into indiscriminate wildfire.
You extend your arm, thrusting over the heads of those around you, following the line of the wide cross-street. Your fingers stab uphill toward the next circle of warm light, a much larger gathering. The Temple of Serapis stands over a large courtyard encircled by long porticos. Panicking forms scurry from a dozen tables loaded with food. Already the area is half empty, Praetorians directing a hasty evacuation.
“There!” Your bellow booms across the square. Your only hope is to keep this blaze moving in pursuit of food, channeling it into less vulnerable areas. “We take the Temple courtyard next. Now!” You descend from the table as the serpent uncoils itself, then surges forward before you.
Time is running out.
You stand atop the raised terrace that elevates the temple, in the space between the top of the staircase and the temple’s first columns. The pilfered sword rests in your left hand. The barred temple rests unmolested at your back–still under the aegis of divine retribution. To both sides and before you, the courtyard churns as it’s ransacked for food. You aren’t sure how much of the mob still hasn’t eaten.
You have given them nothing. One meal? In the morning they’ll be hungry again.
You suppress a frustrated growl. If the gods are so damn concerned, couldn’t they have their priests come out of the temple and present the people with some food?
That will change nothing. You must give them true change. Fix this.
Further out, in the twilight zone where the remnants of torchlight merely give depth to the shadows, dark shapes prowl restlessly. A dozen of them meld and dart, disappearing down alleys and reappearing at your flanks, probing for soft points. The displaced Praetorians. They’ve surely sent a runner back for reinforcements. A quarter hour to the Praetorian Fortress from here. Allowing time to rouse and arm the men there, followed by a quick march through Rome’s streets… you figure they’ll be here in an hour. Hundreds of disciplined men, in full armor. You must all be gone before then.
The Praetorian wraiths beyond the light congeal into a pool of indistinct malice. They’re discussing whether they should strike now. They’ve been shamed by this crush of rabble, and their pride will make it harder to wait. The longer you stay here, the more likely they’ll draw blades and try for the serpent’s underbelly. You have no faith in the discipline of this crowd to rebuff a well-placed strike.
“Sura, Cornelius!” you yell. “Come here!”
Cornelius looks up from raiding a wine cask in a corner, cheered on by his entourage. He grabs a full cup and totters your way. Sura is the man who first stirred his group into setting up feasting tables back in the Suburra. Turns out he’s the head of a Suburra “Brotherhood of the Crossroads” gang, providing spurious protection at the public fountains. He’s the sort of scum the gods would normally have you cleanse from the city. His presence fills your mouth with an aftertaste of rancid milk. But damned if he isn’t useful. He leaves his gang with a nod, as they squabble over the last bones of a roasted goose.
You crouch at Cornelius’s approach, to speak more comfortably from the temple’s terrace. He raises his cup overhead.
“For you, son. You’ve done us proud.”
An unexpected blush of pride blossoms within you. It’s not the heady intoxication of the gods’ approval, but it comes with a feeling of grounded stability that you like. You regard the cup momentarily.
“I can’t. But thank you.” You smile at him. Cornelius shrugs and happily brings the cup to his own lips.
Sura arrives seconds later. You nod to him as he saunters up.
“We can’t stay.” You address them both. You’ll need their help to move the crowd. “The food’s gone, and the vultures are gathering.” You motion with your sword at the Praetorian forms shifting in the dark.
Sura’s eyes narrow. “Not everyone’s eaten.”
“And we ain’t got nothing take to our families,” Cornelius protests. The sudden disappointment in his voice jabs into your ribs.
You cannot stop now. Nothing has changed.
“I know,” you say aloud. “We’re done screwing around. Trajan’s Market is just down the hill. We’re going to hit it hard, then scatter back to the Suburra.”
“Wait… you saying what I think you’re saying?” asks Sura.
Cornelius’s eyes go wide. “Oh damn, son…”
You nod. Trajan’s Market overlooks Trajan’s Forum, and so contains not only shops but also government offices. Smack in the center of its third tier sits the primary administrative office for Rome’s grain dole. It holds barrels full of grain claim tokens, each one good for a week’s ration of wheat. It contains a list of every citizen entitled to a token, and records of who has already claimed theirs this week. With the records burned and the tokens captured, the poor would have a source of food for a while longer. Let the rich take some of the burden of this famine as well.
Even better, the office sits adjacent to a major state storeroom of grain, built back into the hill. Every dispensary on Quirinal Hill and in the Field of Mars receives their stock from that warehouse. Working quickly, with this many people, you can clear out a fair fraction of it. Everyone will get to eat tonight, no matter how sick or infirm. The children and the elderly. There’ll be enough to hide away for days to come.
Sura’s mouth curls into a knife-edged grin. “Let’s do it.”
Cornelius takes a deep gulp from his cup, then wipes his lips across the back of his hand. He thinks for a moment before replying. “Aye. We need to take care of our own.”
“Good.” You survey the human leviathan curled around you. Thick tumors of people have accreted around every table. The last of the food is nearly devoured. Tight cords of angry rioters twitch and flex, demanding more. The smell of rotting spiced meat fills you with an anxious hunger, a fear you’ll always be empty. The desire to consume is maddening.
At the periphery a fist fight erupts among three or four men. Whatever paltry dish incited the scuffle is crushed underfoot. You spot a Praetorian shadow as it flickers through the gloom beyond them.
“Suburra!” You straighten, and yell it to the far corners. “Listen up!” A handful of eyes had already been watching you intently. More heads turn your way now. “What the hell is wrong with you? Did you assholes forget who we’re fighting already?” Your shouts draw grumbles. That’s fine. It’s the attention that’s important. “You’re surrounded by wealth, and you brawl over scraps? Fuck the leavings! We’re done eating their trash! We own these streets!”
Yells of approval ring out, mostly from the young men who prowl the night in gangs. You’ll take what you can get.
“Are we going to tear each other apart like the fucking barbarians?”
A massed return-shout of “NO!”, with far greater numbers. Even those at the edges listen now.
“Are we going to take back what’s ours?”
The returning “YES!” is deafening. The crowd surges with the cry.
“Trajan’s Market lies fat below us! Let’s make sure the rich fucks won’t forget this night!” You drop from the temple terrace to the courtyard four feet below. Sura and Cornelius fall in on either side of you, matching your stride as you march to the street. The river of grim-faced humanity coalesces behind you again, sending a rush of power up your spine and into your chest.
Everyone is watching you, but for once it isn’t a bad thing. Your breathing comes deep. This is unity. This is hundreds of minds working as one, and you could get lost in it forever.
You direct the flow of bodies at the clutch of murmuring Praetorian shades. They scatter like a disrupted murder of crows. The scouring light of your torches licks at their heels as they flee.
“Cornelius,” you turn to the man, who has somehow managed to acquire a new cup of wine in the interim. “Go back; make sure we’re bringing along all the tables, and anything else large and heavy. I want to plug up the stairways when we arrive.” Cornelius nods, and falls back into the column. You doubt his wine will survive the turbulence of traveling against the stream.
It isn’t far to the Market, and the Forum below it. In minutes you roll around the last major bend. The western slope of Quirinal Hill pitches down steeply. The rapid drop in elevation allows you to see over the apartments below, giving you a magnificent view of Trajan’s Forum.
The forum fills the whole valley, from the base of Quirinal Hill below you, to the base of Capitoline Hill six hundred feet south, and extends over one and a half times that in length. Half the forum consists of a piazza cobbled in white marble, enclosed in sweeping colonnades three stories tall. The piazza alone covers as much area as the Colosseum. The Basilica Ulpia stands at the Piazza’s northern edge, a massive building that stretches the full width of the Forum and reaches well over a hundred feet high. Behind it lies the Temple of Trajan. If the entire area were cleared, two Colosseums could fit inside it. Everywhere statues and friezes depict Trajan in his glory, crushing the Dacians. Their defeat and subjugation paid for Trajan’s Forum, his Basilica, his Temple, and far more. It continues to pay for much to this day.
Tonight the Forum shines with a thousand torches or more, and two bonfires. It outshines the moon, a celestial rival nestled in the hills of Rome. The lavishly gowned elite of the city pack its grounds. The music of what must be a hundred players reaches to you at the top of the hill. Tables overflow with fruits and cakes. The meats of a dozen exotic animals turn on spits every hundred feet.
Intermingled with the swank revelers must be hundreds of slaves, and, of course, Praetorians to keep the peace. At least a hundred of them. You can imagine far too well the carnage that would ensue if you poured this river of armed poverty into that basin.
Without pause you turn left, leaving the main road. The snake constricts around you, squeezing into a street half as wide. It winds downward around a single awkwardly jutting apartment building, and then you spill onto the third tier of Trajan’s Market.
Trajan’s Market was built to overlook Trajan’s Forum. As the Forum already occupied the entirety of the valley, the Market was excavated directly into Quirinal Hill. Its lowest level lies adjacent to the Forum, just a few steps from that civic center, everything but the storefronts themselves burrowed into the hillside. The next level lies directly above the first, but every following tier is set further back, following the slope of the hill as it tapers to its peak. In several places the roofs of the second and third tiers serve as walkways of the third and fourth tiers, creating verandas that overlook the extravagant Forum. The complex resembles a terraced waterfall hewn in clean lines and gentle arcs.
The third tier is bisected by the road you’re on, a paved lane cutting across the hillside with shops and offices on either side. It forms a sharp ravine of brick and travertine and locked doors, hiding you from sight of the Forum. Which would be perfect, if it wasn’t for the full squadron of Praetorian Guardsmen glaring at you from the center of the road. Not the simply uniformed Praetorians keeping order in the feasting areas. These are fully-armored men, from helmets to tower shields, swords drawn and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to block the street. They heard you coming.
Shit. Of course the administrative office of the grain dole wouldn’t be left unguarded. If anything, you’re lucky there’s only one squad here.
You raise a hand and slow your approach. You have no desire to feed this procession into a Praetorian meat grinder. You turn to Sura and jerk a thumb at the row of shops to your right, on the downslope side. They rise only a single story and can be climbed with a bit of help.
“Get up there. Take as many men as you can fit, and rain tiles down on those bastards.”
“You don’t want us to drop down behind them?”
“No. We need to leave them an escape route.” You’re sharply aware of time running down. Anyone still in this ravine when reinforcements arrive will be slaughtered. You want to clear out in half an hour, well before they come. Three quarters hour at the outside. If these Praetorians turtle up with their backs to a wall, they could keep you at bay that long. You have to force them back.
Sura shrugs. With a whistle and a gesture he steps to the wall, his ruffians disengaging from the main mass to gather to him. You continue to lead the bulk of the Suburran serpent past his group, closing on the Praetorian squad.
“Turn back!” A sharp bark from the center of the line. “This is your only warning!”
In response you bend to pick up a loose rock, then straighten, step, and fling it overhand at the speaker’s face. It bounces harmlessly off his raised shield. A second later something sails over your head from behind and plonks off another shield. Then the hail begins in earnest, debris and bricks arcing from the crowd, battering against the shields without stop.
You crouch and grab for the nearest projectiles ricocheting back, whip them at exposed shins. A torch flies overhead, and a stool of all things, and jagged chunks of travertine that must have been broken from the shop facades. Shouts of fury echo from the walls and are swallowed by the greedy night sky.
“Forward, march!” The line of men advances as one, huddled behind shields, occasionally raising them briefly to deflect a missile arcing for a forehead. You hurl another brick, then flip your sword to your right hand and draw your dagger with your left. Now the gods will decide who dies and who lives.
The first of the tiles plummets from above, fired clay flung down two-handed. The Praetorians aren’t blind, they’ve been watching the roofs. The shields of the targeted men snap up to intercept the tiles, warding off the pummeling rain, and exposing their right arms and legs. Their neighbors scramble to cover for them, but it isn’t enough, the torrent is relentless. Rocks strike armor, some find flesh.
The advance slows, and then a stone that must’ve been pried from the curb, weighing at least thirty pounds, pitches from the crowd and smashes into a Praetorian’s exposed knee. The man screams and crumples to the street.
In an instant the Praetorians to either side snap into a protective stance before him. A third falls back to drag him to safety. Your chest swells in pride. That is the Roman discipline you have missed so sorely. There’s the safety and trust you’ve never found anywhere else.
The squad falls back two steps, as several tiles slip through and batter men over the shoulders and head. If you can push them back a bit further you’ll be able to reclaim most of the projectiles flung before. The Praetorians will have to flee, or risk a direct charge.
Behind you a sudden, new sound. A scream, not of spite or rage, but of raw pain. Another–choked and gurgling. Familiar sounds, horrible sounds, and coming from the wrong place. You spin around.
Far down the street, death drops like acid into the center of your column. The fifth tier of Trajan’s Market is mostly enclosed, a covered arcade of shops acting like a tunnel hugging the side of the hill. It ends in a wide balcony, to provide a view of Trajan’s Forums for the weary resting their feet. The balcony ends directly over the center of the third tier street. It swarms with shadows now, shadows that glint with exposed steel. The lightly armed Praetorians that lurked at your periphery since you trespassed on Quirinal Hill.
One by one they grab the bottom edge of the balcony then drop onto the heads of the Suburrans below. A flutter, a flash, and men scream. Confusion mounts, and the serpent of humanity thrashes. Panicked people recoil from the cutting wraiths, shoving neighbors outward, entangling those trying to rush into the fight. Both are cut down. Torches fall, and are snuffed underfoot. This is a building rout.
No time. Tromping behind you. Warning shouts. You whirl back, six upraised shields rushing you, seconds away. You lock eyes with the man charging you, a snarling, baleful face rising over his shield. Tiles crash across it and the eyes flinch. That’s when you leap, shoulder-first.
By the time the Praetorian’s eyes snap back it’s too late. You plow into the shield, and his momentum propels him into you. In a civilized fight you’d both have men behind you, pushing forward, adding their weight to the charge. As it is, it’s just you and him, and you’re larger. Your shoulder holds, his face slams into the back of his shield.
One does not fight a single man when going up against a trained Roman unit, one fights an entire squadron. When a gap appears in a line, the man to its left stabs crosswise into it until the offender is repelled or perforated. Your lunge pushed you into their line. The sword that darts out from the Praetorian on your right is a snap of indistinct movement.
You’re still rebounding from the shield, your parry is almost an instinctive jerk, prompted by the gods, your sword battering his blade away. You thrust with your left, no thought, just action. Your dagger digs deep into something meaty, a bicep punctured, as you leap back. Tongues of steel lick after you, tasting the air you just left.
This is bullshit, you need a shield. You might as well be fighting with one arm lopped off.
The Praetorian opposite you has recovered, his lips and chin flowing red with blood from a snapped nose. To your left two of his compatriots push into the crowd, hacking and stabbing. Three more fight to your right. The rain of missiles has largely stopped, the Praetorians are too close. Only the tiles from above keep falling. To your sides clubs pound against shields, knives flash, but it’s not the Praetorian side that’s losing ground.
Your opposite lunges for you. You spring back, or try. You collide with bodies behind you, a tide of people pushing outward, fleeing from the scything fall of the Praetorians at your rear. They drive you forward. You can’t gain any footing to dodge as the Praetorian’s sword slices out low from behind his shield, a single point, a rising star.
You yell terror, hands flailing down, and catch the blade with the lower edge of your left hand. It slices into the outside heel of your hand, grinds against a jutting wrist bone. You push the blade outward with your wrist, past you. A cry of pain, but not yours. You don’t feel pain yet, just white heat.
Your eyes bulge, you lash with your sword desperately, jabbing around the shield. Your point chinks against plate armor uselessly. You can’t jump back, you can’t twist away, panicked bodies push on you from behind.
You press forward, leaning against the shield, stabbing again and again to no effect. You feel the Praetorian shift, struggle with his weapon arm, but nothing else. No searing pain. You should be dead. He should be burying his blade in your side.
Your head spins, you trip forward, forcing both of you back. He staggers and you raise one leg high, then stomp down hard against his ankle, shoving forward with both hands. He falls and you finally see what saved you. The Praetorian’s sword is buried to the hilt in another man’s chest. The press of bodies must have forced the writhing man forward, twisting the blade and trapping it in his ribcage.
The corpse spills to your side. The pressure eases from your back, but you don’t have time to finish the toppled Praetorian. The seventh man, the one missing from the charge, has been hanging back to shore up any breaches in the line. Curly blond hair peeks from under his helmet. He rushes you.
You leap back, cursing. Swinging your sword at a flash of movement as you go, an angry hack. The Praetorian to your right, yanking his sword from a lanky man’s guts, catches your sword’s retreating arc. You cleave halfway through his elbow. His sword falls from his hands, then he’s lost to you as the blond Praetorian leaps over his fallen comrade.
You come down on something thick and slippery. Your back foot slides out from under you and you fall hard on your ass. You scramble backwards across the cobblestones, holding your sword up defensively with your right hand, bracing on your left.
The instant you put weight on your left hand screaming pain lances up your arm, the fresh gash grinding against the street. The dagger slips from your grip, you crumple onto your elbow, and the Praetorian is over you now, sword swinging down.
A thick up-swung staff meets it inches from your face. The blade rebounds, gouging a large chunk of wood as it goes. A grizzled middle-aged woman steps past you on the left, swinging the staff with practiced ease. A teenage boy leaps by on the right, smashing a cudgel down on the Praetorian’s shield two-handed. The man flinches, takes a step back, and you barely have the time to shout a single syllable.
The boy follows up with another wild swing. The Praetorian steps into it, deflecting it easily on his shield, and runs his sword through the boy’s throat. It gushes a red torrent as the man moves on to the woman without waiting for the body to drop. It is awful and glorious to watch Rome’s soldiers dispatch the untrained.
You struggle to your feet, and you keep rising once you’re up, your viewpoint crawling up out of your body, into the air, watching the carnage unfold below. Watching yourself tense, preparing to jump at the Praetorian before he can cut down the woman too. You didn’t expect to end up here tonight. It’s been years. You don’t like it here.
The Praetorian hesitates, seeing something in your stance. You watch yourself circle two steps to his right, stepping over the teenager’s body. Torchlight paints you half-sun, half-shadow. Then you lunge, sword point at his eyes.
His shield comes up, catches the thrust, and he twists to counter-stab. The woman’s staff arcs out, crunches knuckles, then kicks up into his chin. He staggers back and you rush forward, elbow his shield aside, and drive your sword point up under his jaw. Every movement directed by the gods. From your vantage above the action you can’t really see the blood, but somehow you can still feel it spilling over your hands.
The woman grins, then abruptly her face falls. She hollers something but neither you nor the gods need any warnings. You watch in mute horror from above.
You see the Praetorian whose nose and ankle you’d broken. He’s regained his feet, and now drives toward your back with sword in hand.
You lurch aside but he’s already on top of you. You’ll never make it away. Today it is finally your turn.
The man’s neck blossoms in liquid rose petals. His whole body convulses in mid-step, eyes pop wide, and the blossom vomits deep red nectar over his clavicle. He crashes to the street, flopping against your calves, painting your legs with his blood.
You snap back into your body. You find yourself looking down at a corpse with a deep knife wound in his throat. You look up. Sura stands two paces away, a dagger in his hand, and a smirk on his lips. You’re unsure which is sharper.
“I know…” he offers, “…‘escape route’ and all that. But I figured the situation had changed.”
You nod. A glance around shows Sura’s thugs have already butchered the Praetorian with the crushed knee and the three to your right, closest to the downslope shops. With the line broken, the mass of the Suburra crowd makes short, grisly work of the final two men. They’re dead before you can fully wrap a cloth around your weeping left hand.
“Come on,” you say, grabbing a shield from the ground. It hurts like hell, and your grip is weak, but you will have that shield. “We aren’t done yet.”
It turns out you are done, though. When you reach the drop point beneath the fifth tier balcony, every Praetorian lies dead or wounded. Without armor or full shields, their only hope had been to spark a rout and let the chaos and stampede do most of the work for them. Their initial success was thwarted when Cornelius arrived with tables from the temple square. He had eight men charge into the fray using a table as a battering ram, while he stood astride it swinging a logging axe and howling slurs about the Praetorians’ mothers and sisters. It was a rally that only Cornelius could pull off. You’re amazed he’s still alive, and with only a few bruises to show for it.
Nonetheless, an impressive spread of bodies lies about the Praetorians. They cut down five men for every casualty they took.
“Someone tend to the wounded,” you order. No one moves, looking back and forth amongst themselves. You sigh. “Benayah! You still alive?”
The half-Jewish boy raises his good hand to draw your attention. You notice it’s covered in blood. You study his face. You recognize the dancing fires of gleeful vengeance in his eyes. You decide not to ask.
“Get these people bandaged up, and get them home. We don’t have much time–”
A strangled gasp catches your ear, followed by thick gurgling. You round on its source, already knowing what you’ll find. Sura rises from the newly-stilled body of a Praetorian, a puddle of blood emptying from a slit throat. The man had been curled up over a crushed arm. He was out of the fight, and he likely would have lived.
“What in fuck are you doing?” you demand. Sura blinks at you, holding a dripping knife in one hand.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m putting these goat-rapers out of our misery.”
“No. Hell no. Losing men in combat is one thing. But this… Do you know what the Praetorians’ll do if they find their men executed after the fight? They’ll tear the city apart to find us.”
“Hm.” Sura saunters over to the next wounded Praetorian and considers him with a raised eyebrow. Then he plunges his knife into his throat. “So exactly what they’ll do anyway. I don’t see the downside.”
Stop him. He must pay.
“Sura, stop this. You’re done.”
“Am I?” Sura steps to the last living Praetorian, a twitching man with a deep gash in his side. He grabs him by the hair. “If we leave them for the healers, we’ll just be fighting them again tomorrow. Tonight’s deaths will have meant nothing. How many of our lives do you want to throw away?”
“Don’t touch him.” The gods’ rage pulses through you. You wrestle them back, dizzy with effort.
“Or what? You’ll turn the Suburra on me?” Sura raises his voice. “Anyone here have any great love for these swine? Anyone want to fight for this Praetorian’s precious life?”
In the resulting silence, you can hear the faint strains of festive music drifting up from the Forum. The Praetorian grits his teeth and closes his eyes.
“I didn’t think so.”
Cornelius and his crew fill the stairways at either end of the Market with as much debris as they can find as the mob tears open shop doors. You don’t know if the noise will carry, but you’d rather be safe. With the stairways blocked, anyone coming to investigate from the Forum will have to go the long way around.
You bind your hand tightly as they work. The doors to the shops break without much trouble. The grain dole office and storehouse are another matter. Their doors are iron-bound and double locked. The sledgehammers and pry-bars don’t budge them. With growing horror you realize you’ll have to leave the grain and the claim tokens behind. Nausea bites into your guts. There isn’t enough time to force these doors open. Hundreds of fully armored Praetorians will be here in maybe a quarter hour.
The coppery tang of blood mingles with the rotting meat smell of the city. The cobblestones glisten slick with blood. You take in the death around you, the seeping bodies. This was all for nothing.
Oh gods, what will you tell these people?
The doors will open. You will not leave before they do.
Madness. There is no time. Is this to be a slaughter? Did the gods bring you here not for your redemption, but their vengeance?
You will not leave before the doors open!
“Hey chief, I think my guys found something useful.” Cornelius stands at the threshold of a busted-in doorway, motioning for you to come. When the hell did you become “chief”? It sounds bizarre coming from the older man’s mouth.
“What?” The word falls flat from your mouth. You killed all these people. Their deaths bought nothing.
“I dunno, some kind of fancy purple granite. Big ol’ hunk of it.”
You come. You peek into the store. It’s as he said–a block of granite the color of deep wine, about a foot thick and wide, and three feet tall. It shimmers with embedded mica. The topmost six inches have been worked heavily with a chisel, though you can’t tell what form it’s meant to take. You look from the unborn statue to Cornelius.
“What is it?” you ask.
“Well, it looks like a damn fine battering ram to me.”
The doors will open.
“Fuck me…” you breathe. You step inside. “Cornelius, go grab the two biggest guys out there.” You grab him as he moves past you, wrapping him in a quick embrace and planting a kiss on his cheek. “You are a damn genius.”
“Shit, first time I ever been called that.” But he smiles as he says it.
Minutes later the door to the administrative office bursts open. Cornelius scuttles in with a group of workmen hauling heavy cracking tools. You peek in for just a second, taking in the locked chests and stacks of ledgers.
“Hurry,” you urge him. “And don’t forget to burn the papers.”
The makeshift ram is damned heavy, but between three people it’s manageable. You shuffle carefully to the storeroom door, the surrounding crowd careful to give you plenty of room. Anticipation charges the air, a leashed joy straining at its rope, on the verge of breaking free.
Four great swings rattle the door, you feel each one in the meat of your wounded hand. The fifth smashes it clear. The three of you step aside and gently lower the ram as eager looters stream in. Shouts of glee ring from inside. You grin, and push your way through the door.
You stop dead on the other side. Your heart drops like a stone, your breath dies on your lips. The cavernous room carved into the hill is nine-tenths empty.
Sixty-pound sacks of grain lie in long rows, stacked over your head, five yards deep. It’s more than the entire Suburra force can carry, but not by much. When they leave, there will be almost nothing left.
People jostle past you to enter the promised room, whooping their delight. Slowly you stagger out of their way. No wonder the grain dole was moved to weekly distribution. Even at half rations, there probably isn’t enough grain in all of Rome to give out a full month’s stipend. They must be frantically filling the warehouses week by week, hoping to keep one day ahead of demand.
If you empty this room, there will be no grain for the residents of Quirinal Hill, and the residents of the Field of Mars. The starvation will simply move from one district to another.
You must leave half this grain.
Your heart pounds. Dozens of men died for this. Maybe a hundred? How do you tell them to leave food behind, when their children grow sickly and weak, and their grandparents wither away?
You will leave half this grain. You were brought to relieve suffering, not just displace it!
Sura steps past you, his men following. He slaps your shoulder as he passes, his eyes glittering. In a far corner you spot the grizzled woman, laughing with a friend, slinging a sack of grain over the staff that saved your life.
The mob will take it anyway. They’ll ignore you. It’ll just make you look weak as they disregard your protests, and nothing else will be different.
You will order them to leave half this grain, and you will do so now. We demand it!
Benayah sticks his head through the door. Even his sour features light up at the sight of all this nourishment. He doesn’t enter yet though. He knows to wait.
You cannot fight this. You must be complicit if you wish to direct this force toward better ends in the future. With every ounce of will you smother the gods’ imperatives, forcing them deep under your ribs. You can’t fuck up yet again. These people mean something. You can’t be cast out from them too. Where else would you go?
You force a broad smile, and lift your hands in triumph.
“Load up!” you yell, your stomach a churning cesspit. “The Suburra is hungry, and we don’t have much time!”
A cheer rocks the storeroom. Commingled relief and joy are given form in exaltation, geysering around you. You keep the smile carved into your face as the gods’ roars turn your insides into a screaming maelstrom.
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First line of next week’s chapter: “Decimus, what is happening in my city?”
First line of this week’s author’s notes: This is where I first really knew I had something.
Word-count of chapter 19 deleted content: 120