A Praetorian body falls from the sky and breaks on the cobblestones beside you. A stench of rotting spices bursts from it.
Shouted orders and fighting grunts filter from above as you haul dilapidated furniture from the tenement next door. No sooner is the entranceway of the Praetorian-infested building choked with splintered couches and tables than another Praetorian century turns onto the crooked street. Their centurion barks an order, and they break into a fast tempo.
You shout the retreat. You’re nearest the Praetorians, at the newly-appointed rear. Benayah, at the other end of the street, takes the lead, breaking south. Smart kid, he knows you’ll need a new ambush point now that your rooftop artillery here has been flushed. You thank the gods he jumped forward first.
The sour sweat of the day rolls down your neck as you flee. The gleaming Praetorians pursue only a few paces behind you, licking at your heels like a wildfire spurred by the sun. Father Fire prodding his many earthly offspring. Without the Praetorian body armor, you’re slightly faster. Just faster enough.
You follow the flow of Suburran fighters around one corner, recognizing this path. Benayah’s headed for the Via Serapis alley. At least some of the Praetorian century giving chase will stay behind to free the men trapped in the tenement you left. The rest of the Suburra will swamp the lingering Praetorians once the bulk of the force has left them behind.
The Suburra first rose from the marsh lying in the valley between Rome’s hills. It swelled there for centuries, ripening with Rome’s refuse. King Priscus built the Great Sewer to drain its pus into the Tiber river centuries ago, but the region never fully lost its septic nature. The ground receives any who tread on it, at first. It tastes the newcomers. Society’s dregs are embraced. But the meddlers and the unwelcome soon find the bile of discontent seeping up around them, sucking at their feet. When they turn their backs a profane human effluence bubbles up from the sewers and the shadows, knives in hand, to drown the interlopers in clutching grips and stabbing points.
Praetorians think their enemy is the mob they fight, but their enemy is far greater. The mob ebbs and flows within the Suburra, the mob forms channels and bulwarks in the swamp of streets. The slums are the terrain that the fighters hide in, the crumbling tenements are storm-clouds the Praetorians fight under. Without a bridge back to the high ground, an isolated squad is swallowed up in minutes.
You dash down a slanted street, at the rear of twenty men, when a fresh Praetorian century enters the cross street ahead. They’re wary, they shout alarm as they see you bearing down on them. There are too many of them, and they shouldn’t be here. Titus had assured you the southern-most forces would stay out of the fight.
Benayah nearly falls over, scrambling to a panicked stop. Behind you the bulk of the previous century rounds a corner. Benayah barely pauses, throws open the large double-doors of the tenement facing the street and bolts inside. The men stream in behind him, you last. The doors slam behind you as four heavy washerwomen lean hard into them. A bar drops, and seconds later the first heave hits the doors from the other side.
You look around. Benayah stands in the center of the corroded atrium, speaking rapidly to an older man leaning on a crutch, surrounded by urchins. Stairs climb up either side, joining layered interior balconies that allow narrow access to dozens of rickety doors. The air stinks of pungent rot. The gods urge you over to the bizarre war council.
“—in the streets here, as fast as they can,” the old man snaps at the children gathered around him. They dash off in various directions, little sparrows to call in the brackish tide. You push past your anxious fighters to Benayah and the old man.
“I need every able-bodied person downstairs, right now,” you instruct.
From past the barred entrance comes the first crumps of falling stone blocks caving in skulls. A shout for shields to be raised, a shuddering blow against the doors. Someone outside starts a count of three.
The old man nods and raises a hand. The rags covering him fall back, exposing a knobby arm emaciated from months of slow starvation.
Remember this. This is why you fight.
“It is time!” he yells, straining lungs that sound like creaking bellows. “Let’s give these bastards some pain!”
Sounds of rushed movement above. Creaking hinges and doors flung open. The stairs rumble with a moorstorm of descending steps. Dirty masses fill the atrium, grim faced. More encrust the staircases reaching up, or press against the balcony railings. None of them are frontline fighters. Older men and women, thin boys just entering manhood. Some adults with withered hands or crippled legs. Something heavy rebounds against the doors behind you, and another count begins. This will have to do. They all hold something sharp, or something heavy.
You turn around at the first sound of splintering and heft your shield. Men form up on either side of you, choking the short hall to the doorway shoulder-to-shoulder in a human dike. A reservoir of the desperate and damned builds against your back, mounting in pressure. The thick breath of massed humanity sticks to your skin. A particularly large rock lands outside, punctuated by a shriek quickly cut off.
“When the doors break, everyone pushes,” you say, pushing out gruff words to keep your voice from trembling. “Forward as one, and don’t stop.”
Rising from the floor, the stench of burning garlic and spices gone bad. You don’t have time to think about it. A crack that booms, an inward explosion of splinters, and you’re charging before the timbers can settle, the roar of a river driving you forward.
The crash of shields barely slows you, the force of the tenement propelling you outward. You’re lifted from your feet, riding a cresting wave of humankind, hands and arms and shoulders at your back, your butt, your thighs. You swing downward in ferocious arcs, battering helmets, hacking chunks out of necks. Praetorians are knocked from their feet by sheer force of weight.
The outpouring tide thrusts you into their ranks, your shield clutched tight against you. As you come down on the far side of the narrow street, feet touching the ground again, you see a wave of ragged fighters turning a far corner and flooding down the slight incline toward the Praetorian flank. The summoned tide. They’ll drown the Praetorians in their own blood. The swamp does not forgive.
You’ve bisected the Praetorian century. Its northern half reels before you in disarray. You lay about yourself, leading with your shield, struggling to rejoin some formation with your men. In this chaos you’re more likely to be caught by a stray swing than any calculated strike. You beat furiously with your sword arm, bashing against shields and armor, keeping the cutting edges at bay. Sweat slips into your eyes. You blink against the stinging, but don’t stop your flailing to wipe your eyes. You stand in a storm of steel, pushing back with all your might.
A Praetorian stumbles into you sideways. You shove him off with your sword arm, then stab into his side. Your point finds a loose segment of plate, slides along and under it, plunges a handspan into the man’s gut. You yank your sword back as he stumbles away. You don’t follow up with a killing blow. There will be many wounded on your side. You need living prisoners to heal them.
The area before you expands suddenly, as if the swamp is drawing a deep breath. Less than ten Praetorians still stand in the swelling space. A biting swarm of men on the other side picks them apart. From behind you hear crashing combat, screams of dying men and women. A quick glance back shows a similar situation–Praetorians engulfed in the scum of a Suburran street gang.
Your shield arm burns, begins to cramp. You take a second’s respite in the sudden pocket of calm. You count three Suburran fighters spilled across the ground for every downed Praetorian. Better than you dared to hope. The Praetorians should never have disturbed the bog under their feet.
Turning forward, you round on a Praetorian with a man by your side. The two of you overwhelm him–you locking his shield with your own, your partner rushing in for the kill. Another Praetorian lunges in to help his brother, too late, bowling into you.
You flail at his back, sword striking metal armor, struggling to keep your feet. A stitch forms in your side and you can’t breathe fast enough to keep it at bay, but there’s no time to rest. Your eyes meet for a second over shields. You see bitter resignation, hardened resolve. You stumble back, choking on saliva or tears or some shit. You spit it into his eyes, gasp for air, and notice his face drips with red just before it’s ripped away.
Benayah stands in the Praetorian’s place, sword dripping blood, staring at you in horror. You try to ask what’s wrong but more saliva bubbles up, and you can’t quite catch your breath. You look down, find a blade sticking from your chest, trapped between two of your lower ribs. Now how did that get there?
The gods are silent.
The searing pain hits you a second later, like the sun caressing your ribs from inside with a single flaring finger. It laughs at you. You’re vaguely aware of Benayah lunging past you, arms outstretched.
It’s fine. So you can’t breathe. You have a healer. A morass of moaning bodies writhes before you, one of them will fix it. Please just let the pain stop, for one second.
The last thing you see is a waterfall of golden liquid. Sixty gallons of your father’s olive oil, heated to the smoking point, cascades over the last two standing Guardsmen and douses the bodies on the ground. Shrieks fill the street to match the violent hiss and pop of boiling oil as men are rendered into seared meat.
What idiot thought that was a good idea? The fight was almost over. All those bodies, wasted. The oil too. You think of how disappointed your father will be, as you fall into darkness.
You wake up screaming in a rank alley, which surprises you. You hadn’t expected to wake up ever again. Your back arches, your eyes flare, and you scream up into a blinding sky.
The sun has come down to earth. His blazing arm reaches down, caressing the rooftops above you, crowning them with brilliant wreaths that twist up for miles.
Your cry cuts short, and you gasp for air. You don’t actually hurt–it is only the memory of pain, the memory of drowning on burning blood. You blink, and the celestial coronation above resolves into no more than a burning tenement, its top floors engulfed in flames. You look down, clutch your chest. There is a hairline scar where the sword had protruded, nothing more.
Wet choking gasps besides you. Your guts plummet in dread. Did they get more Praetorians? They couldn’t have, not in time. You were minutes from death. Someone has been sacrificed to heal you.
Turn your head! the gods demand, but you can’t yet. You focus on the hard cobblestones beneath you. The rancid smell rising from them. The sun beating on your face. Anything. You don’t want to see.
Your eyes are dragged to the side, maybe under your will, though does it matter?
Benayah convulses under the sun, blood bubbling from his lips, blood seeping from his chest.
Gods. Dammit. Gods damn that fucking idiot.
“Benayah? Why?” You become aware of hands pushing you aside roughly.
“Move!” barked by a hoarse woman’s voice, “I can still heal one more from him!”
You roll aside dully, rise to your knees. Two men drag a fighter with a deep gut wound into your spot, and the Vestal handmaiden grabs his wrist with one hand, her other having never let go of Benayah. The wound in the fighter closes up in seconds, color returns to his face. The healer winces. Benayah’s stomach splits open and bile bursts across the ground. He keens, shudders, and gasps a final time.
“Why? Why him?”
A hand extends to you. You follow it to see Largo’s troubled face. You clasp his hand, lifting yourself to your feet.
“His choice,” Largo says. “He said you were too valuable. That too many people look to you. And that he’s just a half-Jew who can’t fight worth shit. He said he’d do it ten times over if he could.” He hesitates, then continues with a look of apology. “Don’t waste his gift.”
At the same time, in your head: Make this worth it.
Fuck him. Fuck the gods. There’s no way to make anything worth that. To make anything worth a life. Benayah had barely reached manhood. Now he is nothing, extinguished forever.
More wounded men are dragged into the cramped alleyway, but there are no prisoners to use as fodder. You’ll have to use the most grievously wounded, executing them to save their fellows.
You can’t get that rancid stench out of your nostrils, and it turns your stomach. You hate the patricians, you hate their Senate games, you hate their Praetorian Guard thugs. You hate a world that grinds people down into slaves and killers, units of production and units of warfare, parts for labor and parts to be fed to the healers. Benayah thought your flesh was worth ten times his own. You hate with the heat of the sun that no one disagrees with him.
You are our tool on Earth, the gods tell you. You must live. You are worth many men’s lives.
How much is a Senator worth then? As many bodies as he can buy? Is that why Rome was chosen to rule over all the lesser races? Because they’re worth more?
You are here to bring justice. You must level the scales. All men will be made equal through your work.
“Wait,” a shaking voice, an elderly voice, calls from the fetid shadows. A hunched crone steps forward, taking the healer’s hand from the wounded man laid on the Vestal’s left side, the killing side. “Use me. I am old.”
The Vestal handmaiden looks up with questioning eyes. “This man is your son? Or grandson?”
“No. He’s a stranger. But he’s fighting, and so is my grandson, and I can’t help him. I’m too old to fight. This is the only thing I can do. I trust some other grandmother will join the fight when my son is struck down, and give her life for a stranger too. We are the Suburra. Today we are one.”
The healer gives her a pitying look, and shakes her head. “Sure, whatever you want.” She takes the old woman’s hand and gives her a moment to set herself down in the crimson muck. Then the screaming begins.
“I can’t believe this is happening.” The words drift weakly from your lips. You see other older men and women approaching, lining up before the impromptu abattoir.
“Andreas,” Largo pulls at your arm. “You’re needed on the front lines. Don’t waste Beneyah’s gift.”
No. You’re sticky and reeling and the sun overhead keeps grinding onward like a millstone, relentless and uncaring. This is taking too long. Too many people are being carved apart.
“Make them call for my cohort,” Titus had said just before he’d left at daybreak. “Bleed them dry, scare them, break their pride. They’ll ask for reinforcements, and that’s all the opening I need.”
You can’t take days of a grey deathmarch. A people shouldn’t have to see their elders torn apart.
The old lady’s corpse is rolled away. It’s placed with Benayah’s body. An old man with eyes entirely clouded over takes her place. His cries are so weak, “ah — ha, ah — ha,” rising like small, intimate prayers.
You remember Beneyah’s face when you intercepted him leaving the House of the Vestal Virgins. The bitter determination in his eyes, the fierce set of his lips. The top of his head didn’t even come to your chin. He shivered with pain, his freshly broken arm clutched against his chest in that simple sling. And he glared up at you with an iron gaze. He knew he couldn’t win in a fight. But damned if he would let you just take his silver, for which he’d suffered so much. He would fight so that you’d know no one could simply come and take what was his. That small half-Jew knew what it meant to be a Roman more than most Romans nowadays. He made you feel shame and pride at once with those eyes, that straightened spine.
It feels like a lifetime ago.
His form lies twisted on itself in this bloody alley now. For him, it was a lifetime ago. Another body is dragged over to join his.
This has to end today.
“Get me a ladder, and rope,” you instruct. “The Praetorians want their Vestals back so damn bad? I’m going to really give them something to sink into the Suburra for.” You wait while they’re fetched, clenching and unclenching your fists. You notice that your left hand is as good as new, the gash you suffered two nights ago completely healed. Your vision blurs. You blink rapidly, and clear your throat. Dammit Benayah.
Your requested materials arrive in the hands of a group of children, moments before the Vestal Handmaiden begins transferring the wounds of the last fighting man. She’s gone pale, but she doesn’t complain or whimper. You wonder how many years she’s been in the Vestal house. How much suffering has passed through her.
“I’m sorry about this, but I need you to disrobe,” you say once she’s finished. Her face sours immediately. Her hand rises to clutch protectively at her neckline. “We can do it somewhere private,” you say, “and you’ll have other clothes to wear.”
The gods rumble displeasure in your mind. They know what you’re planning, and they don’t approve.
“Without my robes I have no protection,” the Handmaiden rebukes you. Her robes are her shield, promising the protection of the emperor and execution to any who would harm her. “Anyone could abuse or manhandle me, like…” her voice falters.
“Like a common pleb?” asks a nearby prostitute, blood under her fingernails.
“We’ll protect you, I promise,” you say.
“That’s always how it starts,” she replies, “with promises and apologies. No. I can’t give you anything. Not even one inch, or it’ll keep growing into more and more demands. We will not give up our honor. There is a line, and I will never let you cross it.”
Your patience frays. You don’t have time for this. The cost in lives far outweighs the honor of her sacred vestments.
“You don’t actually have a choice.” You motion to your men. Without hesitation a dozen of them step forward, arms crossed and eyes hard.
You struggle to hold yourself still against the gods’ growing anger. It’s easier than it used to be. You worry what will happen if it ever becomes too easy. If some day their words have no effect at all.
“Please,” you say, “I don’t want this to be difficult. But I will do what I have to.”
You see every twitch as her face slowly crumples. Her body sags. Baleful eyes bore into your skull with the cold anger of betrayal. You didn’t realize there’d been any sentiment there to be betrayed. You take the disgust you feel with yourself and burn it into hard resolve.
“You’re all the same,” she utters, her voice toneless. Without breaking your gaze, she silently strips there in the alley.
You gather two hundred men and slog out of the alleys and side streets, marching directly onto the Suburra’s main road. Blood splatters every street. The bitter stench grows worse with every step. It drives you to distraction, rage licking up from your toes, up past your loins, searing your lungs. It grabs onto the heavy heat of the relentless sun and pulls it inside you. The men don’t bear it any better than you do. Low murmurs slip from the advancing front, growled spites and whispered hates. Lips curl into unquiet snarls.
You trudge east as the road rises from the rotting shallows up to the Esquiline Gate, and to the mass of Praetorians stationed before it. They make up the eastern half of the force assaulting the Suburra. Supposedly they numbered two thousand here at the beginning of the day. There are still more than you can count, more than you can guess.
The malicious sun glares from directly above them, scrutinizing your approach. It’s always overhead, always bearing down on you, which should be impossible. There should be some streets where it’s blocked by the towering tenements. Is it tracking you?
This road is wide enough that no laundry lines stretch across it. It’s wide enough to accommodate the Praetorians in march formation. An expanse of shining metal creeps down the street, the armor of century upon century gleaming like a hungry firestorm. The festering flood of the Suburran populace stays well back, growing sick with rancor. The Praetorians have forded a dozen cross-streets, scouring and sterilizing all the buildings on either side as they went. You’re sure the stink comes from them. Disgust crawls up the back of your throat.
You bark an order. In response two grisly standards rise from the human bog behind you–Praetorian centurions lashed to poles, still in their armor. One has been decapitated, his head dangling from his shoulders on a leather thong. The other’s been burned horribly, the skin of his skull fused to his helmet from the downpour of boiling oil.
Roars burst from your men, a swelling froth of retribution. You break; you yell with them. You had been against this display, but the yell that erupts from you feels like purging fire. It actually feels good. The men around you jeer at the ranks of Praetorians. They lift their tunics to waggle their cocks at the soldiers up the hill. They throw shit at the raised centurion carcasses.
“Come on, you fucking dogs,” you hiss through your teeth. “Come show us how great you are.”
The island of Praetorians grinds to a halt. It looms, shimmering in the sun, a mountain suspended over a chasm.
This can’t work. These soldiers are nothing like the rabble around you. They’ll never slip into righteous wrath. You grind your teeth. You raise your hand, and finally the ladder is hoisted heavenward.
A human scarecrow lifts from the thick of your men, her arms lashed behind her back at the top of the ladder. Her cowl falls as she rises, revealing a countenance scarred with the pox of a hundred rich men’s carelessness. Her hair sticks to the drooping hood, clumpy with ichor. Congealed blood streaks her face and stains her Vestal robes.
The real Vestal is safe deep in the Suburra. You’ve taken the body of one of the Praetorian’s slaughtered victims, a mother of four who heaved rocks from rooftops so her children could eat a few meals. She was as innocent as anyone else drowning in this shit. She deserved better in death. But with her pox-scarred countenance and wilted hair she could be mistaken for a Vestal from a distance. Especially after you’d broken her jaw, peeled away an eyelid, and smeared her entire form with the dirt of the streets and the blood of the elderly.
You are so sorry. You didn’t want to desecrate her body. After this is over you will give her a hero’s burial. For today, you have desperate need of her corpse. You’re sure she would want this, to secure her children’s future.
The gods in your mind rant about useless apologies, about how little “sorry” means to the dead, about how convenient this is for you. About complicity and responsibility and failure.
But you cannot watch the grandparents of the Suburra waiting in line for their turn to die. You can’t see them laying down in pools of blood, ready to be split open. You will desecrate a single corpse to stop that. You will dishonor a single Vestal for it.
The Praetorians don’t budge. You scream rage and abhorrence. Your men shake the woman’s scaffold, shouting with you. They prod the body with spiked poles, piercing its filthy robes. The body leaks only slightly, having long since grown cold.
Don’t let this be for nothing.
A shiver passes through the Praetorian mass, a flashing tremor rippling from one end to the other. Then, one century at a time, they break forward, a landslide of bristling men shaken loose in a rumbling roar. You howl back. You lift your sword and plow forward, ready to kill, blood thrumming in your ears. The Suburrans surge with you, jumping with violent energy.
FOOL! Drown them in the alleys!
The gods haven’t abandoned you entirely. You restrain yourself, growling against frustrated desire.
“Back to our ground!” you shout, spinning around. “Bring the bodies!”
The men remember themselves. They turn. They lower the bait, heft poles across shoulders. They scatter.
Behind you the avalanche crashes down the street. The sun rolls across the sky in its wake, an implacable, crushing wheel bearing down onto you all.
The fighting is unspeakable. It rages for hours. Praetorian groups are split, isolated, overwhelmed. Tenements are gutted, every soul inside slaughtered by Guardsmen clearing breathing room.
The city chokes with hate. You welcome it. It fills you with strength. It ignites your men’s eyes. It twists the faces of the Praetorians. Praetorians caged in drowning alleys. Faces crushed under murderous rains. The hate maddens. Those who fumble weapons dive for eyes with clawed fingers. Bare ripping teeth.
As the sun grinds down onto the western horizon, streaking the sky with bloody tatters, the exhausted fighters of the eastern Suburra pool below the Esquiline Gate once more. They are filthy. Many of them should be dead several times over, their lives bought by those less able to fight, or the captured Praetorian scum who fell into your grasp. Drying blood fills every crease of skin and stiffens every tunic.
An expanse of armored men still stands before the gate. Praetorian reinforcements in the hundreds. The siege of the Suburra will not be broken this day. More dirty bodies trickle in from the surrounding streets to regard the occupying force in glowering vigil. The slum’s delta fills with the sediment of destitution. Dock hands and thieves. Slumlords and washerwomen and drunkards. Civic slaves with no master’s house to sleep in, and the endless blinking eyes of every silent orphan. They glare at the intruders from corners and dark alleys. They all carry something that cuts.
As the sun lowers another step, a new flow of men emerges from the Gate in an orderly channel. Perfect rows of fresh soldiers, four abreast, streaming from behind the Servian Wall. Their uniforms don’t quite match those of the Praetorians. There is more red in their skirts, and less adornment on their pauldrons. These must be Titus’s men. The first cohort of the German legion, or a fair portion of it. They supplement the Praetorian forces, filling out their ranks.
You did it, then. You got them to call up the reserves today. Which means you have to press now.
You lift your head and fill your lungs, managing not to gag. You bellow the final outrage, an incoherent accusatory scream. You step forward, then stride, then run. Charging up the hill, the tip of a spear thrust by the massed hands of the Suburra. Hundreds of foaming men rage at your heels. Behind them, you assume the teeming thousands follow more cautiously, looking for safe places to plant their knives.
The Praetorians draw their swords. The German legionnaires draw theirs. And with barely a dozen strides left before impact, the Germans turn on their Praetorian brethren–swords driving into a neighbor’s side, plunging into an exposed back, cutting a startled throat. High Rome’s bulwark crumbles before you. Low Rome’s forces scream exultation and plow into the maelstrom. The Praetorians disintegrate under your butchery. Those at the edges turn to flee. A few even make it half a block’s length before feral packs of crowing Suburrans fall on them and tear them to wet ribbons.
The flooding waters of the Suburra are stagnant no more. They rise reeking from the streets and burst the dikes of civilization that held them this long. The Esquiline Gate disgorges a torrent of human filth as they overflow into the city proper. The pent-up rage of neglected poverty courses into the heart of Rome.
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First line of next week’s chapter: Marcus came to the end of his son’s letters.
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