21. Andreas

The hive of the Suburra buzzes with frenetic activity as its residents prepare for the incursion of the Praetorian Guard. Last night’s plunder must be hidden away. Floorboards are pried up, cots slit open. Children are given hand-grinders to furiously mill what grain they can into flour. They slurp it down as runny porridge. The best hiding place is within oneself, where the food can no longer be reclaimed.

Standing over the heap of grain sacks in the center courtyard of Cornelius’s tenement, you call out directions to the gathered hungry. “Find weapons,” you instruct them as they come with stick-like arms outstretched, begging food. “The Praetorians are coming!” They boil over the bounty, like ants swarming a cat carcass. Quickly they bite, taking small handfuls, rushing back to their nests with the substance of life cradled in their hands.

“Never be far from a knife and a friend,” you call after them as they skitter away. You see wide, scared eyes. You see bricks and rocks carried off. It is better than nothing.

You scan faces as they come, bowed under the beating sun. You search for someone healthy. Someone to take the stolen Praetorian armor laying at your feet. The silvered carapace is mottled with false rust–you haven’t taken the time to clean off the blood. You seek someone who’ll keep it, wear it when needed. Not sell it for food. Is that selfish of you? Before yesterday, the gods would have told you. Before yesterday, they would have pointed out someone who would don the armor and fight with you. Now they only roar.

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You scan faces, but focus is difficult. Your head buzzes, a jar of choking flies. It’s hard to think straight with the cacophony of fury and weeping in your head.

“Just shut up,” you hiss, to no effect. The gods have grown incoherent in their outrage. They nearly erupted when that old mother presented you with clean clothing. It was too reminiscent of ritual adornment. Ritual adoration of iniquity.

You’d marched into Cornelius’s cheering tenement at sunrise, at the head of a small group. Your compatriots dashed off to their rooms. They wiped off the blood, changed into unstained clothes. You had nothing. Your secondary clothing is at your father’s house, on Esquiline Hill. You haven’t been back there in… a while. You aren’t sure exactly how long. You watched the sun claw its way into the sky, realizing you’ve watched it rise, climb, and fall several times today. What feels like today. You aren’t sure how many actual days have passed since you last slept. That’s fine, you’re not tired right now. You have things to do. Vital things. The Praetorians are coming.

As you stood there, grimy with victory, an older woman approached with an armful of folded fabric. She must have had a very large husband–she held a clean tunic, one in remarkably good condition. No embroidery or dye to distinguish it, but as you slipped it on you couldn’t help but feel honored. Like she had presented you with a Suburran sort of Triumphal Vestments. Her eyes wetted with gratitude. Gratitude for your violence. The howling in your mind rose to a churning gale. You waited, eyes closed, until you could hear again.

“They’re already callin’ us the Suburran Triumvirate,” Cornelius had told you as you’d wound your way through the low-lying streets, hundreds of exultant fighters loaded with grain and loot behind you. He shouted to be heard over the jubilant crowds. The night sky hadn’t yet begun to lighten. The entire Suburra celebrated with abandon beneath the stars. The last skins of hoarded wine were brought out to share. Women’s tunics mysteriously slipped from shoulders at alarming rates.

“Who’s the third?” you asked.

“Sura, of course.”

Of course. You vaguely recalled hearing that the original Triumvirate didn’t end happily. Something about infighting and betrayal.

A child emerged from the press, slipping between tromping adult legs. It held out an imploring hand, probably the most important skill it knew. You reached for grain, but Cornelius stopped you.

“If you give that out in the streets, we won’t ever get home,” he said. “And only the pushy ones’ll get any. Wait. Let everyone take their spoils back to their tenements, and distribute ‘em from there. You know, to their fellow residents. Then the grain’s dispersed evenly through the Suburra, and the fighters get their glory, and even folks too infirm to jostle in the streets get a fair share.”

You hesitated. Instinctively you stiffened, bracing for a lashing from the gods for failing to do the right thing. None came. Their wrath at this make-shift Triumph overwhelmed other concerns. You were left to your own dizzied thoughts.

Cornelius sounded reasonable. Yet the reasoning left you feeling hollow. How do you turn away a starving child standing before you when twenty tons of grain trails behind you?

“What if the kid doesn’t live in a tenement?” you asked.

Cornelius placed a sympathetic hand on your shoulder. “Look chief, someone’ll take care of it. You’re not a god, you’re not responsible for everything. If the urchin shows up at our tenement, we feed it. You gotta take care of those you’re close to, and trust that others take care of folks close to them.”

“Like we’re taking care of the Suburra, and letting the other districts starve?”

Cornelius snorted. “I’m not the least bit worried about those rich fuckers. You think they can’t take care of themselves? They own the world. Let them figure it out.”

Anger boiled inside you. You couldn’t tell if it was your own or the gods’. You clamped down on it as you marched through the streets, but the gods’ cries kept spilling over into you. Occasional bursts of despair ripped out your insides. Flashes of rage whited out your vision. They left you drained, and blank, and numb. Afterwards you felt a thousand hidden eyes watching you.

It’s this fucking hero’s welcome. These people have no idea what they’re cheering. You led men to their deaths. How many cheers will turn to screams when the cost in family blood is felt? Will they think it worth it for some loot, a couple days of food, and claim tokens to empty warehouses?

Was it worth their lives, to let the rich fuckers know that the poor wouldn’t starve in meek silence? To scream that they would not make this easy, they would not slip quietly into the void?

They seem to think so.

It’s not your problem. It’s too big for you. It was their decision; you were just a tool to execute their will. Trust them to know what is best for themselves and help facilitate their choices. That’s all you can do. What more do the gods expect?

The begging child finally gave up, moving on to other marks. Why had it picked you out? It turned away without tears. It fell behind you, then was gone, swallowed by the crowd.

At your rear, a scene from a myth: a river of grain flowing sluggishly into the Suburra, its banks made of torchlight and joy. A celebration for violence well-executed. It hurt to see. You thank the gods that there’d never been any celebration for what you did in Jerusalem. You couldn’t have survived something like that. A Triumph for slaughter.

It didn’t have to be that way. You’re sure of it. How would the world have been different, if the Battle of Betar had gone as it was supposed to, and the Jewish Rebellion had been crushed there? If Bar Kokhba hadn’t damned himself by raising the hungry dead entombed below that city to fall upon the Roman legions? If he hadn’t pursued the survivors back to Jerusalem, where they holed up in the inner city, in the one place Bar Kokhba could never forgive their trespassing?

How would the Empire be different, if Emperor Hadrian hadn’t thrown the succession into chaos by naming Lucius Aelius his heir just before marching to Jerusalem? Aelius was despised by every man in Rome, as far as you could tell. Perhaps it was only meant to be temporary. Perhaps Hadrian planned to pick a less hated successor when he returned.

He never got the chance. Hadrian roused the young men of Rome into action–To save their countrymen! To turn back the undying zombie tide!–and marched off with you and your fellow recruits. You broke Bar Kokhba’s siege of Jerusalem, crushed his zombie army to moaning splinters. You saved the Roman troops that remained in the inner city. But Emperor Hadrian was lost in the fighting. Without Hadrian, you couldn’t defeat Bar Kokhba in totality; Kokhba still held the fortress city of Betar.

So you remained, occupying Jerusalem, putting down the undead, waiting for leadership.

Immediately Rome erupted into turmoil as Aelius ascended to the throne, and every political actor united against him. The Empire seized in gridlock as Rome’s patrician families maneuvered and connived and assassinated.

For two years your legion bled, a thousand tiny cuts in Jerusalem’s alleys and tunnels. Reinforcements arrived piecemeal. Never enough to mount a solid offense, only there to offer up their bodies to the grinder. Even after Aelius died abruptly and Pius took the throne, nothing changed. Rome had domestic tumult to quell, Jerusalem could wait. And so it did, right up until Bar Kokhba unleashed the stolen Horrors of Carthage.

That proved to be his biggest miscalculation. As long as Romans drew breath, Carthage could never be revived. Rome released her floodgates of fear and loathing. There could no longer be any delay, and that’s what saved you and damned you. Emperor Pius gave command of the Legions to the younger Verus brother, called Libo, with orders to permanently pacify the Jewish population.

Libo, like his brother Marcus, did not believe in half measures.

If only Betar had fallen in the first siege. If only Hadrian had lived. If only Pius had turned his attention to Jerusalem swiftly. If only one of a hundred other little things had gone differently. All of this could have been avoided. Jerusalem would still exist. Legion Deiotariana would still exist. And you wouldn’t be here, squinting against the sun in Cornelius’s tenement, with gods screaming in your head.

A heavy hand claps down on you from behind. You had no warning from the gods. You duck your shoulder and spin to meet your attacker, moving on instinct. You’re clenching a tunic, fist in flight, when you recognize Cornelius. You draw up short. Liquid dribbles down your calves–Cornelius’s dropped cup has splashed wine over both of you. His face is struck between fear and confusion.

“Gods, Andreas, get ahold of yourself!” He tries to pull back, but your hand doesn’t budge. “You’re, uh, you’re in a bad way again, huh?” He grimaces in understanding. “C’mon, let’s get you a drink.”

“Yes…” One moment of laxity. That’s all it takes. You could be dead right now. “Yes, okay.” You unclench your fist and take a step back. Your head still spins. You notice you’ve smeared blood into Cornelius’s clothes. The bandage over your left hand needs changing. The sight of it brings the pain bursting back. You look away, waiting for it to sink under the surface of your mental din again. Yes, wine, that’ll help.

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Oh, wait, no.

“Wait, no, I can’t, there’s no time,” you look back to Cornelius. “We have to prepare. Do you have weapons ready? Do you have armor?” But this is Cornelius; he isn’t concerned with weapons or armor. He has drink and friends, and so he’s happy. You snatch up the bundle of armaments at your feet and push them into his hands. “Take this. Hide it, for now. You may need it soon.”

“Me? You’re the fighter, you need this more’n I do.”

“No. If you don’t want it, give it to someone who does. I’m fine without it.” After all, you have the favor of the gods to protect you.

The buzz in your head crashes over into jeers. Voices burst through in turns.

You were complicit in evil! You defied us!

You swore never again. You swore to us.

But there was no choice. The mob would have taken the grain anyway.

Gods do not compromise with mortals.

Good does not compromise with Evil.

You swore to us!

Can’t they see you live in the world of men? Men can’t stand against everything alone. Men will break. Men need allies. You are not a god!

You said the same thing in Jerusalem.

Have you forgotten Jerusalem?

HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN ALREADY?

You can’t do this now. The tromp of marching troops reverberates from the street. The Praetorians are here. Cornelius’s tenement stills, the courtyard empties, the last sack scooped up. The quiet before the storm. You slip into the shelter of the common room, secure your hidden dagger under your tunic, and take refuge in a dark corner. Then the angry soldiers descend, a hail of shoving hands and shouted abuse.

 


 

The wake of the Praetorian tempest leaves the common room a wreck. Toppled chairs and overturned barrels litter the floor. Aside from some salt and the dregs of wine, they were all empty. The Praetorians found nothing.

(“Fuck me, but that was dicey!” laughs Cornelius.)

Benayah tends to those that were manhandled–the sprained wrists and split lips. You finally change the bandage over your hand. It comes away sticky, bringing a storm of sharp agony. You throw yourself into work to distract from the pain. You use an hour to help clear the wreckage. You refill water barrels, and sweep up salt.

Word arrives that the Praetorians are coming up empty everywhere across the Suburra. A few cups of grain here or there. Nothing they can return to the emperor with.

(“Did you see them sulk outta here, with their tails between their legs?” laughs Cornelius. “Toothless thugs! They looked like kicked puppies.”)

They’d brought a stench with them when they’d blown in. It remained after they left. Something sweet and rotting. It hovers at the ceilings, enticing you to draw it in. Your spine straightens, your chest swells in deep inhalations. Your eyes water in rebellion.

(“Like they all shit themselves coming into the Suburra, and tried to hide it with flowers!” laughs Cornelius.)

You step out into the courtyard to get away from the lurid aroma, but it’s even worse outside. It brings the buzzing in your head to a new peak. Everything else sounds muffled.

The courtyard slowly fills with the grateful poor. They gather to share relief after the urgent work is finished. They smile at you, nodding thanks. They bring you porridge. They present it to you like a feast, like you’re their champion. You smile back, accepting it reverently, and the gods’ wailing be damned. You helped these people. The people who needed help most. You won’t spit on their appreciation.

Cornelius is likewise honored. He soaks it all in with bombast. He promises two pounds of grain to anyone who can get him a cup of wine, his eyes sparkling. You fill with pride at the triumphs of these people. Hated and downtrodden, but never broken. The embodiment of the true grit of Roman-kind. It feels good to know you’ve done something right in this world.

(“Praetorians returning!” laughs a boy, rushing into the inner courtyard from the streets, wheezing for breath. “They look angry as hell!”)

(“Y’all go back to your apartments and hide,” laughs Cornelius. “I’ll take care of it.”)

(You wish people would stop laughing everything. Even the gods are laughing their disapproval now.)

The Praetorians crash in before he’s done speaking. They stomp forward in formation, six-by-six, nearly half a Century. The centurion at their fore seethes, his outraged eyes locked to Cornelius. He pushes into the old drunk, shoves him back one step, then another.

“You’ll do what, motherfucker?”

The Praetorian centurion does not laugh it. He shoves Cornelius again. “You’ll ‘take care’ of it?” They’ve brought back the stink of putrid pollen with them, and a wave of it washes over you. Cornelius raises his chin and looks the centurion in the eyes. He thrusts his belly before him like a shield.

“I’m just trying ta keep people calm, so no one gets hurt.”

The centurion glowers at him. “You think you’re a big man? You’ll shoo away the Praetorian Guard? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Cornelius squares his shoulders. “Name’s Gaius Cornelius Blaesus, same as my father.” He’s acting strange. Chest out, chin raised, eyes proud. You remember the roasted pig the legionaries stole from the Suburra feast, three days ago. The burning shame of it. Maybe Cornelius does too. You edge closer. “I own this building. I’ve got a duty to my tenants.”

The centurion’s fist smashes into the side of Cornelius’s face, sending him reeling. It’s followed by a kick to his gut, and again to his side. You’re halfway across the courtyard before you know what you’re doing, fists tight. The centurion sees you coming and whips his sword out, levels it at your eyes while you’re still two strides away.

“Sit your ass down, you dumb fuck.”

“Sit down, lad,” Cornelius wheezes, still doubled over.

The centurion kicks Cornelius again. “I give the orders around here.” He turns back to you. “You’ll sit, or I kill him right now.”

Slowly, watching the sword, you sit on the ground. It takes an astounding effort. Your muscles tighten in protest. You feel like a bow pulled double and wedged into the earth, your frame straining to contain explosive pressure.

The din inside you grows.

The centurion turns back to Cornelius. The heavy man struggles to stand straight. His face clenches against pain, but he lifts his head high and glares back at the centurion like he’s got something to prove.

“You some kind of rat-king, huh?” asks the centurion. He takes two sauntering steps forward and rests the point of his sword on Cornelius’s chest. “Ordering around the vermin. Makes me wonder…” He lifts and drops the sword point against Cornelius’s chest. Tap, tap, tap. “All fucking day I’ve been running around this cesspit.” Tap. “And all day I’ve been hearing whispers of a Suburran Triumvirate.” Tap, tap. “Three great men to rescue the downtrodden. Raise up the rats.” The centurion snorts. The tapping stops. “You sacks of shit. Common fucking thieves, stealing from Rome. I should execute you for treason, right here.”

“Didn’t steal shit,” Cornelius insists through grit teeth. “Look around if you don’t believe me, you ain’t finding nothing.”

“No. Men don’t scuttle after rats. You work for us.”

The centurion raises his voice, his shouts echoing through the tenement. “Hear me, vermin of Rome! You will bring me the stolen grain, or I split your rat-king here in half! You have five minutes!”

You jerk, almost springing to your feet. You halt and ratchet yourself back before the centurion notices. The droning in your head rises to a numbing howl. You watch as hobnailed sandals pace back and forth, counting off the seconds.

“We got nothing,” Cornelius says, his voice defiant. “We’re just one tenement. How would we get all the grain of the Suburra?”

“That sounds like your problem to me,” says the centurion.

Suffocating minutes pass.

“My blade’s getting thirsty!” the centurion shouts. “Last chance!”

A scrawny girl steps from a shadowed doorway. Her hair is a tangled nest of grime, her clothes nothing more than patches and scraps. It looks like the residents have recruited their most pathetic member for this. She approaches holding a half-filled sack in her hands.

“Julia, no…” Cornelius breathes.

Julia slows to a halt a few steps from the centurion. She holds out the sack uneasily.

“Here. This is everything we have. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve saved over the past few months. If… if it’ll save Cornelius… please…”

The girl stands rigid, sack raised before her like an offering. Her performance is flawed. Her back is too straight, her shoulders not stooped enough. Her gaze doesn’t lay dead in the dirt at her feet.

You can’t see the centurion’s face, but you feel the air grow chill. Silence frosts the courtyard. With every passing second the weight of cold contempt grows. The outrage of privilege denied.

“So that’s the way it’s going to be,” the centurion speaks. His voice is slow, a grinding glacier. “I gave you a chance. You spit in my face with lies. There’s only one thing you animals understand.”

The Praetorian centurion takes one step to Cornelius and plunges his sword into the man’s gut. It sinks deep, swallowed full to the hilt.

Julia screams. You’re already in soaring motion.

 


 

The first time you can be sure you heard the gods, truly heard them, was in Jerusalem. The summer sun blazed out of a cloudless sky. Blood pooled around your feet. You were celebrating. And you were sick. And…

No, that’s jumping to the end. Back up a bit, to make sense of it. Just a few minutes. That’s all it takes.

You were on patrol with your squad, again. Libo had arrived in Jerusalem earlier that month. He’d begun the purge immediately. His doctrine identified anyone who ran as an enemy.

Jews could be stopped and searched without condition, and patrols were to do so frequently. Anyone found with weapons or magical components was to be taken in for interrogation or killed on the spot. Anyone who ran from a Roman was assumed to be carrying contraband, and was to be treated accordingly. Nothing short of complete compliance was tolerated.

Your squad turned onto a wide street upslope of the boy. Gangly, looking like he’d just hit his first pubescent growth spurt. You couldn’t tell from this distance, a bit over a block away, but you’d bet he’d never put a razor to his face. Hadn’t yet needed to.

He was crouching over a bundle.

He was looking up at you, eyes huge, frozen in panic.

You saw, in that instant, your younger brother Thaddeus. He shared those wide, inquisitive eyes. Similar hands too–curious, investigating oddities, poking at anything unusual that caught his attention. More than anything, Thaddeus always wanted to know why. And how. And what. He wished to know everything one could know. He’d taken to pestering the Greek philosophers of the city, but they didn’t seem to mind. It made your parents weirdly proud. You knew Thaddeus was your parent’s favorite, but that was fine. He’d probably be your favorite too, to be honest.

This Jewish boy crouched over a bundle in the street, he was someone’s favorite as well.

He was smart enough to be terrified of Romans. Far too terrified to stay put. Maybe the boy was setting a Horror trap. Maybe he was moving weapons. You imagine he was curious, investigating a strange bundle he’d found dropped in the street. Perhaps he would find a treasure, or discover a way to return it to its owner? You never found out. Once he ran, it didn’t matter.

“Javelins!” shouted Vibius, your squad leader. Six javelins flew from the men around you, diving toward the boy’s back. You stood there stupidly. You couldn’t do this.

“Cast, fool!” yelled Vibius, striking your shoulder. Reflexively you lunged, whipped your arm forward, and sent your javelin after the boy. To disobey was treason. You pulled your cast though, so it would fall short, and sent it a bit left just to be sure. You hadn’t thought about it. There was no time to think. But you couldn’t kill the boy, and your body responded appropriately. It was a good body.

Yet when your javelin left your hand, something felt off about it. Something that caught in your chest. It was wrong.

The six leading missiles hurtled down the street clumsily, yours followed behind them in a graceful climb. It rose as if on wings, and immediately you could see you’d fucked up. Already you could see its whole flight, a perfect arc terminating right in the Jewish boy’s back. You felt the world drop out from under you. Your entire body flushed ice cold, your breath dying on your lips.

For those few seconds you felt the pull of desire as you’d never felt it before in your life. Your whole being became a single desperate wish that you could go back just one instant. Change just one detail of your throw. The smallest bit less force, or more. The slightest slip of one finger. Or that you could reach out now and pull the missile back. Snatch it from its course. You prayed without words, only fear and hope and silent mental screaming, that you could push the javelin ever so slightly to the right, push with all your will, and make this not happen.

But there are no second chances in physics. Once a javelin is in flight, there is no man or god that can see it changed. Its entire course was determined the moment it left your hand, as sure as the roads leading to Rome. All that was left was to wait for time to take it through its path. One. Heartbeat. At. A. Time.

Six useless javelins clattered against cobblestones. Yours plunged into a gawky boy’s body, its tip piercing to the left of his spine, just below the heart. The shaft dove in after, its hurled weight splintering the rib and spearing through spongy lung. With barely a choked gasp, the body crashed face-first to the street. It tumbled and skid less than a foot.

“Holy shiiiiiit!!! Did you see that?” Vibius laughed, the rest of your squad broke into cheers. The screaming in your head wouldn’t stop. “That was beautiful! Let’s go see!”

You cinched a strangling grin onto your face as the eight of you ran down the street, whooping in excitement. You didn’t whoop, but they didn’t notice. Vibius reached the body first. He put his toe under the boy’s chin and lifted, turning the head so you could all see the face in profile. Curly black hair, falling into wide, unblinking eyes. Front teeth had broken in the fall. Blood trickled from the mouth, leaking from parted lips.

“That was an insane throw!” Men laughed, clapped you on the back, as the world went fuzzy and distant. Something thrashed, endlessly screaming inside you, and you couldn’t let anyone see it.

“I know,” you replied, lips wrenched into joy. “I knew as soon as it left my hand.”

“That’s one Jew that’ll never stab any Roman in the back again!” proclaimed Vibius. You nodded. And planted one foot on the boy. And grabbed your javelin. Dark red liquid spurted from the wound, overflowing the already-sodden shirt. It pooled around the body, trickled down the slope, drew bright patterns between cobblestones. The screaming in your mind multiplied every time the blood flow branched.

You jerked the missile free. The body twitched under your foot. The screaming twisted into words. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Over and over. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It didn’t do the boy any good. His eyes dried slowly.

Within that chant, that looping mantra in your mind, rose a foreign voice. It didn’t speak words yet, but it carried a certitude that carved itself into your soul. A mental transmutation that you’ll come to recognize as the declarations of gods. It said something that meant both You can never atone for this and You Will Atone For This.

You didn’t recognize the voices back then. Not yet. They would grow stronger. After all, the purge had barely begun. This boy was memorable only because he was the first.

 


 

A miniature waterfall of red spills over your hand. A warm, bloody fountain. You find yourself crouched under the Praetorian centurion, in Cornelius’s tenement. The sun drenches you in heat. You grip your dagger, the one usually hidden under your tunic. Right now it’s sheathed in the centurion’s inner thigh.

You feel that same sickening loss of control as when you’d first recognized your javelin’s arc. The horror of it being too late, of watching onrushing future events that you can do nothing to change. Of it being your fault.

But unlike the killing of the boy, this doesn’t feel wrong. You’re glad that you can no longer go back. This is a course you want to be committed to.

Let them reap what they have sown.

You twist your dagger as you yank it out, and a small river gushes after it. You’ve sliced the centurion’s femoral artery, lengthwise. He’ll be dead before they can drag him out of this courtyard. You rise to your feet quickly as he blinks at you, jaw dropped, not quite understanding. Still gripping the sword buried in Cornelius’s gut.

It’s gone silent in your head. That’s nice.

Then the world explodes. Rocks and bricks rain from the upper floors of the tenement, a deluge crashing into the Praetorians below. Half a dozen men fall in seconds, helmets and armor stoven in. Screams of rage echo from above.

The Praetorian centurion stumbles back and collapses, still holding his sword, drawing it unevenly from Cornelius’s belly. Cornelius falls back onto his ass, then flops over, spilling viscera. Julia covers her head and sprints to the door she came from.

You step to the centurion, strip the wet sword from his grip, turn to face the Praetorian formation. From the corner of your eye you see Julia charging back again, leaning into a long sharpened pole held before her, ten more residents behind her armed with similar make-shift spears. The rain of stones has lightened, the Praetorians gather their bearings, lifting shields overhead.

Behind them, Benayah and a dozen angry men spill from the common room, armed with metal weapons–axes, cleavers, even a couple swords. They yell as they charge, taking the Praetorians in the back, cutting the battered men down. You leap forward as well, throwing yourself into the bedlam. In less than a minute the survivors break, running for the tenement’s gates. They’re chased by falling pottery and stones.

The mob pulls the gates closed behind the fleeing men and sets crossbars. Outside you can hear the sounds of shouting, of crushing stones falling, of men screaming injury. They’re withdrawing, but they will be back.

The Suburra is in no immediate danger. Rome was built for war. Every tenement, every apartment, every manor owned by every rich man, is built with war in mind. Not war against outside forces, but war against competing factions in the city. Rival families or rival gangs, depending on your class. No building in the city has windows on the ground floor, eschewing them for thick outer walls. Entrances are few, usually one major gate, reinforced, and one or two smaller exits that can be well-secured.

The Suburra can make the Praetorians pay dearly for every single street they take. They can set up ambushes once the Praetorians have passed, striking them from the back and side. It’ll be as bad as Jerusalem. It would be worse, if Rome had Jerusalem’s tunnels.

The Suburra can’t hold out forever though. The Praetorians are much better killers, with years of experience, and unfettered access to food. The Suburra will fall, eventually. Unless it receives outside help.

You survey the carnage. Most of the fallen Praetorians are still dying, some of them noisily. The Suburran fighters are stripping them of their weapons and their shields, prying them out of their armor. You flag down the fighter that looks the most stoic about it.

“You, what’s your name?” you ask. The man looks to be in his forties.

“Ruso, sir.” He salutes you. This doesn’t even surprise you anymore.

“Ruso. Keep this tenement secure. And see that Cornelius’s body is kept in a place of honor until he can be properly interred.” You glance over to Cornelius. People kneel at his side trying to give him water, but he isn’t moving. If he isn’t dead yet, he will be in minutes. “And send word throughout the Suburra–the Praetorians have declared war on us. The elites think we’re more convenient dead than alive. Everyone must prepare for a siege. Let’s show them how fucking inconvenient we can be.”

“Yes, sir.” He hesitates, then ventures, “Are you leaving us, sir?”

“I’m going to get reinforcements. There are still a few powerful men who remember what it means to be Roman. I’ll be back before the sun rises tomorrow, and I won’t be alone.”

It sounds like the sort of thing the gods would have said. You almost believe it yourself.


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First line of next week’s chapter: I sat at the small desk of my musty writing room, quill in hand, trying to ignore the words crawling over my flesh.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I wrote out a timeline for myself, just to make sure things lined up correctly.
Word-count of chapter 21 deleted content: 146

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