For the first time in a seven-day eternity I could breathe without gagging. I hadn’t realized how quickly I’d grown accepting of that unnatural reek. I filled my lungs with clean, clear air. It didn’t stick or obstruct.
The barbarians’ creature seemed to have lost its emotive aura. I felt no strange lust when it had settled between Andreas and myself; only the natural fear of having a vicious monstrosity that close. My heart skipped with relief when it took Andreas away. I wished it could take all the violent lunatics of the world along with him.
I looked down at the wet grass underfoot. The Ludus was gone. The very idea was ridiculous. How many other buildings had been erased?
My heart leapt into my throat. Had my sanctuary survived? How much would it entertain God to see my place of refuge torn from the world? I choked back panic and burst into a stumbling run.
I veered through the city’s shattered streets. Sun glinted from jagged edges of still-wet cobblestones. Rome’s citizens stepped gingerly from cracked homes and slumping tenements, blinking at the bright world around them. They inhaled deeply, as I had, amazed at the lightness in their lungs. Soon they would remember the hollowness of their bellies. But for a little while they could revel in the joy of survival.
Three streets down, a block had been reduced to rubble. I heard it before I saw it, the weeping anguish of surviving family carrying well through the newly cleared air. The injured lay in the street, moaning. Men and women of all ages crawled over the wreckage, voices hoarse from shouting, hands bleeding from wrenching free debris.
Shame bit into me as I rushed past. I pushed it away, angry at myself. They were Romans, after all, weren’t they? They wouldn’t have stopped to help a slave. And besides, I had to first check on Aurelius. But the burr of guilt wouldn’t quite come free, as ridiculous as it was.
With a sudden cramp in my stomach it hit me that I hadn’t even considered Erik and Zia. Were they in the Ludus when it had vanished? They must’ve fled when the Colosseum began to collapse. They wouldn’t wait in that building, at the tunnel’s mouth, waiting for me to come running from it…
I increased my pace, fear prodding my steps. I paused when I passed the temples, to scan their gathering crowds. High priests led the masses in prayer, while initiates guided or carried the wounded inside. I called Erik and Zia’s names, and those of the other slaves as well. I never received an answer or spied a familiar face.
Anxiety roiled my stomach. I dashed onward. This was my fault. The summoning ritual. Their loyalty. More than anything, the fact that God was so damned interested in me. As long as He fixated on me, no one I loved could be safe. They would suffer miseries, or death, so I could experience perseverance or growth, or whatever Eydis had been so sure her God loved watching.
I stopped at a ruined fountain spewing water into the streets, gasping for breath. I braced myself on its jagged masonry and stared into the city’s wound. My love was a curse. I couldn’t live like this. It was better not to exist at all.
Wasn’t that Eydis’s thinking? Had she infected me?
Andreas’s words echoed in my mind. Perhaps with the right knowledge and magic, we can leave God’s mind. Flee His dream. Andreas said he didn’t have a reason to try, but I certainly did. It was the most important thing in the world. I forced myself back into motion.
When I rounded that final corner and beheld the temple of Somnus, shining unbroken admit the wailing crowds, a sobbing joy cracked my lips. My flight arrested in that stride. I buried my face in my hands, squeezed my eyes shut hard, and shook for over a minute. My relief came out in hot trickling tears. This one thing, at least, was still safe.
After several steadying breaths I wiped my face and pressed forward. I pushed my way through the crowd before the temple, searching for my solace. I found him within the temple itself, in the packed common room built around the great statue of the sleeping god. He knelt by a whimpering child, wrapping a bandage over her upper arm.
“Aurelius!” I cried out, weaving through the throngs of wounded, hurrying to his side. He glanced up at me and smiled. He lifted a delaying finger and returned to the child, cutting the bandage and tucking its end.
“That’s a brave girl,” he said. He pointed to a nearby doorway, its curtains open. “Go wait in there, and we’ll find your parents. Can you make it on your own?”
The girl sniffled, nodded, and picked her way to the indicated room. Aurelius turned back to me, and before he fully stood I enveloped him in a lunging embrace. I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t care to stop myself. The sight of him filled me with everything that was good in this life. He tottered for a second before regaining his balance and hugging me back. His boyish laugh launched my pounding heart into pursuit of the sun.
I wanted to live my whole life in his embrace. Eydis was wrong. Some things were worth suffering the slings and arrows of God’s nightmare. At least until we figured out how to cut ourselves from His twisted mind, and leave His power forever.
“I’m so glad to see you,” I whispered into his golden locks. He hummed in shared joy. I squeezed tight one more time, then pulled myself back to look into his eyes. They stopped my breath, almost distracted me. I could lose myself in them.
But not yet. I had concerns in this world now. Responsibilities to others. I took a deep breath.
“Aurelius, the Ludus is gone. Un-dreamed. If there was anyone inside it…?” I trailed off, making it a question with raised eyebrows.
“They’re gone too,” Aurelius confirmed.
“Shit.” I winced against the crumpling dread in my chest.
That didn’t mean they were dead though. They probably hadn’t been in the Ludus. That would be insanity, and they weren’t insane. Right?
“Aurelius, I know I just got here, but I have to go. I have to look for my friends.” That word didn’t feel quite right in my mouth. Not friends. I blinked in surprise. Really? “Not just friends,” I said slowly. “I think I have a family now.”
Aurelius laughed at that, like I was some adorable child. “That’s not unusual. Most people do.”
I wasn’t done yet, though. “I think… that is, I want…” I took in his joyous countenance, his sparkling eyes, and I knew. I lifted my chest, renouncing all my hesitations and doubts. “I would like you to–”
I was stopped by a single, silencing finger pressed gently to my lips. Aurelius smiled behind that finger to dampen the blow.
“Joah, there are hundreds of ways to love,” he spoke. His apologetic eyes invited me to ease myself slowly around regret. “Please be happy with what we have, like I am, and don’t wish for impossible things.”
My heart had started its descent the moment he said my name. It was a slow descent, and it settled itself back into my chest snuggly. He was right. I had been silly. That was alright, everyone made mistakes sometimes. He was kind, and he wouldn’t hold it against me.
“Of course,” I said, only bleeding a little at the needles inside me. “I’m glad you’re safe. I have to go though. My family may need help, I have to find them. I’ll come back when I can.”
Aurelius gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Be safe,” he said, “and don’t worry. You’ll always have sanctuary here.”
I smiled. I knew he loved me, in his way. Love involved all sorts of exchanges.
Aurelius turned to help an elderly man as I left. I stepped around a mother, three children at her heels, pushing small coins into a priest’s hands. He gave her incense and pointed her to an obeisance room. Already the sweet tang of sacred scents tinged the air. Somewhere behind me, the grateful sobbings of a family reunited.
I stepped into a brilliant cascade of midday sun. Worry suffused the crowd around me, but the comforting priests kept them hushed. Sparrows stuck their heads out from nooks, asking each other if it was safe to come out in chirping calls. I’d reassure them, if I could. For all its horrors, Rome was the place that held my family, and you don’t just abandon your family.
I fingered the penknife at my belt. I thought of God, watching me. No. You don’t just abandon your family. You fix what needs fixing, or you die trying. There had to be some way free from God’s nightmare. I allowed myself a final sadness for Eydis, who would never see our new world. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t either. Maybe this would take centuries. But now we knew, and at last we could begin the work.
Then I strode forth, calling Zia’s and Erik’s names, and already making plans.
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