You don’t really wake up, because you were never really asleep. You’d staggered into your father’s house on Quirinal Hill after dawn, then spent unknown hours drifting in and out of consciousness. Tossing in your bed. Sweating. The curtains drawn against the daylight. Occasionally you woke fully as panic gripped you. You breathed through it, eyes squeezed tight. You should have had more wine. A bit more and maybe you could’ve slept peacefully, dead to the world.
Your brother, Thaddeus, had roused you from your restless half-slumber. As you’d dozed in the stifling room you’d grown aware of something watching you. A crawling insect-touch that started at your shoulder and spread across your body, up your neck, and into your scalp. Your breath quickened, as beings turned their attention to you, expectant. You should not be here, they thought at you, there are people who need your help.
You cracked one eyelid to spy your younger brother standing at the room’s entrance, leaning against the jamb. His eyes caught the light of a sun low in the sky, glittering at you, catlike. He didn’t want you here either, but unlike the gods he didn’t care about anyone but himself.
“Back again?” Thaddeus said. His voice was sarcasm and judgment. “There’s a big surprise.”
“So sorry to inconvenience you,” you replied, rubbing your face as you sat up and set your feet on the floor. This put you within reach of Thaddeus in the small room. The spartan space contained a bed and a small stand and nothing else. Bedrooms are places to sleep, not places for business or entertaining.
“I hear you lost sixty pounds of grain,” Thaddeus said in flat contempt. “Drank it away. Sounds like another fuck-up to me.” Suddenly you were awake, nerves on edge. But that wasn’t what set you off.
“Classic Andreas. Still worthless.”
That wasn’t what set you off either.
Thaddeus considers himself a good person. If he came upon a child drowning in the Tiber he’d rush in to save it regardless of concerns for his health or how badly it would ruin his boots. Only a monster would refuse to inconvenience themselves to save a life, and he isn’t a monster. But he only sees the one child that he actually comes across. He’s too myopic, too focused on his life and the family, to see the thousands of children drowning every day in Rome. Starving, or sick, or beaten, or abandoned. He doesn’t realize the misery that could be alleviated with just a bit of effort on his part. No one does. Everyone thinks themselves a good person, because they close their eyes.
You can’t close your eyes, the gods hold them open. You see the misery, and you must do something about it. You can’t not do something, because you have at least a shred of decency. Thaddeus has never done anything but move oil back and forth for your father. So when he paints you as a monster…
“Sextus has called in my debt,” your mother had told you, after her increasingly terrified cries and frantic spoon blows had shamed you into releasing your brother, and she’d flushed you into the kitchen, putting the length of the house between Thaddeus and yourself. “It’s happening all over the city, some political thing. I can’t pay him, Andreas. I need you to talk to him.”
Couldn’t pay? Ridiculous. Your family imports olive oil. Surely there are barrels of it in a warehouse on the docks. “Father can’t cover it?” you ask, changing the bandage at your side.
“Philon doesn’t know.” Her eyes implored you not to ask why.
“Why? Can’t you tell him?”
“No. If he found out… look, it’s about you.” Your parents don’t talk to each other about you anymore. “The loans were to cover your fines. Your father’s forsworn you.”
You didn’t know that. Only your mother is left, then.
You really shouldn’t have attacked that senator’s son. But the gods demanded justice. He couldn’t be allowed to denigrate those who already suffered so much. The gods required he feel some small measure of the pain and fear of those he exploited. He had to be made viscerally aware there were consequences. You’d felt at least one of his bones break.
You thought your father had paid the fines for your crime to prevent you being sold into slavery, but it seems he’s given up on you. You had thought he was a good man. A bit stern, but a man of principles. What changed?
“I went to Sextus in private,” your mother continued. “I told him I came at Philon’s request. I put up our inventory against the debt. Today he sent word he wants it paid in three days, or he’ll seize our stock. If that’s seized, we won’t be able to make any money, pay any debts, or even buy new stock. They’ll take everything, Andreas.”
Your mother didn’t cry. She merely pressed fingers to the corners of her eyes and stopped speaking for a while. If Thaddeus had been there he would have comforted her. He’s good at that sort of thing. You just stood still, heart hammering.
Three days. You can still fix this. Sextus is a reasonable man. He gains nothing from seeing your family ruined.
You hurry through crowded streets, racing the sun. You have to get to Sextus before night falls and he closes his doors. He lives in Carinae, overlooking the Colosseum, and you’ll have to cut through the Suburra slums to make it in time. The streets narrow, shrinking under looming tenements. Eyes watch you from behind corners, from the shadowed recesses of hard faces.
Help. Stop, the many eyes think at you. These people need your help.
Not yet, you think back. Your family first. Your mother first. Then the others.
Always delays. Disapproval in the glares. You only ever see them at the edge of your vision. Your head snaps up, and the merchant to your right is looking away. But you know he was just looking at you. A man passes you, his attention down the street, but just before you looked he was peering at you from the corner of his eyes. It is the great aggregated focus of the gods, demanding action.
Soon, you promise. You know if the gods leave you, you’ll revert to the wretch the legion hauled out of Jerusalem. A husk, confined in an abyss no one else can see. The gods rescued you, and elevated you. They have a purpose for you in the Suburra. But your mother’s debt is your fault. You must fix that first.
They all hurt, the gods say as they withdraw. With the words you feel the desperate clawing of broken fingernails under your skin. You hear the wails of parents clutching dead children, of the wife betrayed, of sons watching their fathers wither away; an endless ocean of shrieks and weeping. You feel the stabbing pain of starving stomachs. When the gods speak, they make their meaning known. It echoes within you, dying away slowly as you rush through the slums.
You don’t blame Thaddeus for not understanding. The gods don’t speak to him, and that’s not his fault. You blame him for not even trying. For ignoring all the suffering around him, then berating you for giving a damn. Calling you lazy and turning the family against you. Standing in your bedroom doorway, outright stating that last night you drank away everything you gained that day.
You’d glared up at Thaddeus from your bed. “Are you starving? Do you have to sell your body so your daughter can eat a cupful of gruel? I gave that wheat to people who needed it far more than you or I do.”
Thaddeus snorted. “Good for you. Just like a fucking legionnaire. Rather than working to produce something you go slaughter people and take their grain, and then when you want to feel noble about–”
You surged upright at the white flash of heat. Thaddeus’s tunic bunched in your clenched fists, your knuckles under his chin. “Don’t say one more fucking word about the legion. You don’t have the right.” You bit out the words inches from his face.
“You’re going to tell me you were paid however much coin AND a month’s worth of grain for a single day of work that didn’t involve murder?”
Your right arm began to tremble. You fought back the urge to grab him by his throat. “You ungrateful piece of shit. You don’t have a goddamn clue. You sit here, so safe and comfortable, reading your philosophers, and you don’t even care to learn what it takes to keep you protected. They are animals out there. They hate you in a way you can’t imagine. They’d break you into shards. You know what they’d do to get to you? What they’ve done already? Barbarians sacrificing their children to call forth monstrosities, Jews defiling their ancestors to raise hordes of undead… and only the legion standing between them and you.”
The memory of that hot day in Jerusalem pushes into your mind. The Bar Kokhba revolt had just entered its fifth year. It was the second year of your service; you’d joined the Legion after word of the Betar Disaster reached Rome. You could vividly imagine hordes of ravenous undead scouring the Roman countryside. You were determined to stop that from happening. To stop the undead here in Judea, and bring to justice those who would unleash such an atrocity.
Your squad had been granted a rest day, but it was too hot to really take advantage of it. You, Bassus, Lars, and five others lounged in the shade of a building you’d commandeered as barracks. It stood in the center of a fortified area within Jerusalem, fully under Roman control and as secure as any military encampment. The group passed a wineskin around as you all gave Bassus shit for the Jewish girlfriend he’d taken. “Too cheap to spend a few coins on a proper whore” was the most common refrain, but it was good natured, and Bassus bore it amicably. You all envied him. His girl, Yael, was sweet, and you’d grown protective of her. She’d become a sort of mascot of the unit. Everyone knew he’d marry Yael and settle in Judea when this was over.
She came around in the mid afternoon, further lifting all your spirits. Her large eyes sparkled as she shared in the wine. Yael was such a little wisp of a thing that it hardly took two passes of the wineskin before her lilting giggles tipped into bubbling laughter. She leaned against Bassus for support. When his hands roamed her body she arched her back and nuzzled against him. She tipped her head up and whispered into his ear.
“Guys, I gotta go take care of something in my bunk,” Bassus announced, taking Yael by the hand. She laughed a private little giggle at this, cheeks flushed. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Everyone hooted and cheered as he led her back into the barracks. Yael cast about sly glances, grinning and tipsy. You stood closest to the barracks door, and clapped Bassus’s shoulder as he passed within. Happiness for your battle-brother’s good fortune came easily.
Moments later a yell of pain resounded from inside, twisting quickly into a low gurgling cry. A crash. You bolted through the door, drawing your weapon, leaping over the first bed. You rushed towards the struggle, trying to comprehend what you were seeing as you ran, but it refused to make sense.
Bassus lay on his back, one hand pressed tight against his throat, blood gushing through his fingers. A deep wound started high on his chest, just to the right of his sternum, and cut upward into his neck. His eyes bulged, chest and arm smeared thickly red. His other hand balled around the hem of Yael’s dress in a deathgrip. She struggled to pull away, strained towards the nearest window. She yanked, then swung down at Bassus as you charged, his sword in her grasp, its first several inches already bloodied. The blade hacked into Bassus’s forearm just as you tackled her. You couldn’t stab her. This couldn’t be her fault.
“Get a healer!” a distant shout, miles away. You subdued Yael easily, pinning her to the floor. Bassus gurgled beside you.
“Why?” you demanded. It came as a yell, bursting into her face. She stared up at you, face hard except for one corner of her mouth twisting into something that could be a smile or could be hate.
“Why!?” You shook her once by the shoulders, bringing her head up and slamming it into the floorboards. A brief groan escaped her, before she grit her teeth and glared into your eyes again. She inhaled sharply, then spit into your face.
“Make room!” A sharp order from a female voice, then a healer dropped to her knees beside you. She laid a young, withered hand on Yael’s wrist. The Jewish girl shrieked and whipped about, almost slipping your grasp.
“Hold her!” the healer snapped. Yael snarled and twisted like a rabid animal, slippery as an eel. You set your knees on her shoulders and clamped hands over her forearms to keep her immobilized for the healing. You didn’t have to yell for assistance—the legion doesn’t field men until they can move as a single body. Two of your brothers already knelt at her waist, holding her legs locked still.
The healer gripped Yael’s wrist with one hand (a yelp from Yael, a jerk, both impotent) and laid the other on Bassus’s wound. She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and moments later a thin scar climbed up beneath her collar, into the side of her neck, up almost to her chin before it stopped. Beneath you, Yael’s twists became erratic, a wet guttural gasp breaking from her throat. You looked down to see the skin of her throat splitting, crimson welling up. The cut grew into a gaping vertical gash, blood rushing out in spurts as she jerked her head wildly. She opened her mouth to scream but it came out as a wet croak, bubbles of red breaking from her lips in a cascade of foam. You held tighter, fingers pushing into her flesh like claws. Looked away. Waited for her to still.
Blood matted Bassus’s chest hair. He lay silent, eyes open, face pale. A red slick spread from him, staining the healer’s robe where she knelt. She pulled his hand from his throat and wiped at his wound with her sleeve. It had been reduced to a thin scar, a mirror of her own. She leaned over him, placed her ear a half inch from his lips. After four long measures she pulled away, then pushed at his wrist with two fingers. Another four measures. Finally she sat back on her heels and shook her head.
“Too late. He lost too much blood. He’s dead.”
You gaped at Bassus. You untangled yourself from Yael’s opened body. You stood, and looked down into her ghostly white face. Deep red seeped up to ring her head.
“What the hells just happened?” you asked. “Who… why did she…”
Lars came to your side. His military sandal entered the edge of your vision. You didn’t look up from Yael’s staring eyes. “She was a Jew,” he said. “We never should have trusted her.”
“Oh gods…” the healer forced herself up, hands on her knees, but couldn’t seem to straighten. You stepped back, finally breaking Yael’s frozen gaze. The healer looked ill. Moreso than normal. She glistened with a sheen of sickly sweat. “What is this? I shouldn’t…” She staggered several steps, braced herself against a wall, and vomited. Black, oily mucus rushed from her mouth in a torrent.
An anguished howl rose from the floor, behind Lars, a bellow born of a dumb creature that knows only endless hunger. Lars buckled, collapsing in pained screams. Bassus’s corpse had latched onto him, hands tight around Lars’s ankles, teeth buried deep in his calf. Your breath stopped entirely. Bassus’s head pulled back with a force no human could match, a large, stringy hunk of meat ripping from Lars’s leg and dripping blood over Bassus’s chin. Bassus’s eyes were opened wider than you’d ever seen them in life, wider than you thought possible, burning with frantic hunger.
A scuffling behind you, a scratch or a moan. You spun around on instinct, lashing out with your hobnailed sandal. It smashed into Yael’s face, her eyes horribly wide as she lunged toward you. Broken teeth flew. Her hands snaked out to grab you, hands with an inhuman speed and strength like iron. You nearly fell, scrambling for the sword you’d left on the floor, but already your brothers were on her, stomping and smashing and stabbing down with their swords. Behind you, you heard the same happening to Bassus’s remains. Lars howled in pain. He’d have to be killed before he turned.
Yael. That terrible bitch. She poisoned her own body; she did this. In the corner the healer continued to vomit convulsively. Ropes of blood spilled from her mouth now. She was already dead, she just hadn’t died yet.
With your assistance, it didn’t take long.
In a much smaller room, in air just as hot and stifling, your brother stares up at you in challenge. Your heart pounds, sweat squelches under your arms.
“The legion keeps those horrors at bay,” you continue, choking back your memories. “We live that hell so you don’t have to. You wouldn’t last a single day in the legion, so shut your fucking mouth.”
He raises his chin and holds your gaze. “Or what? You’ll brutalize me too? You didn’t get enough of that, stomping old men in Jerusalem?”
That was when you lost it.
Fortunately your mother was just one room away.
Sextus’s office ceiling yawns high above you, reaching into the second floor. Some idiot’s overperfumed the building with a sickly-sweet scent. The air sticks in your throat as you look down at the coins in your hand. For yesterday’s action you were paid as much as a laborer makes in a week. The bonus you received doubled that. It isn’t even close to enough to pay your mother’s debt.
The wait to see Sextus had been a long one. Night fell and oil lamps were lit as you fretted about how long you had before the gods returned. The man just before you, a Jew that Sextus greeted as ‘Joah,’ had carried on about needing money to find a translator. You’d paced the atrium many times as he’d ranted about how many different Germanic tribes there were and the need for precision in translation when magic was involved. Something indistinct to do with the Anniversary Games and the favor of the emperor. Your ambling had begun to draw suspicious looks from the guards when Sextus casually promised the Jew a sum you couldn’t make in a month. You make it a point not to glare at him when he leaves.
By contrast, your audience with Sextus goes faster than taking a long piss.
You look up at Sextus, the large man sitting behind an expansive desk piled with ledgers and tablets. It requires discipline to maintain eye contact, to push down the urge to keep scanning the room, constantly checking corners and shadows for movement. People find it unsettling when you’re obvious about it.
“Sir,” you begin, as befits a former officer, “about my father’s debt,” because he thinks your father requested it, “I hear you’ve called it in,” Sextus’s face darkens even as you’re speaking, “and I need to ask, to request, an extension, of a month–”
Sextus raises a hand to halt you. “No.”
“Sir, we’d of course pay additional interest, I’d bring it to you every day–”
“It can’t be done.”
“But, if I could prevail upon you, as former brothers in arms–”
“Son, there’s nothing to discuss.” Sextus lifts his bulk from his desk and comes around to stand before you. His eyes carry a touch of pity. “This is bigger than you or your family. This is politics. When the great men of Rome quarrel, the commoners that get underfoot get crushed. Your father is a Paullus Pulcher man, isn’t he? Your best bet is to beg another loan from him before he draws his purse-strings tight.”
You can’t go to Paullus. He’d want to deal directly with your father.
“Sir… if that’s my best bet, then I am royally fucked.”
Sextus snorts in grim amusement. “I’m sorry, Andreas. You still have three days. Keep checking with me for work, something is likely to come up during the games. If the rest of your family and friends all throw in maybe you can pull together enough in time. I’ve seen far crazier things in my time.” He crosses back to the other side of his desk and inspects a worn quill with a frown. “Now go, I still have much to do.”
You leave Sextus’s office, returning to the similarly high-ceilinged atrium. You pass a well-muscled man about your age, his hair rich black. As he enters behind you, you hear Sextus greet him warmly. “Ah, Titus! What do you have for me today?”
Sextus greeted you by name, too. He greets everyone by name, maybe to show he can remember even the least of his supplicants. It must have served him well as an officer.
You exit into the night, to a street noisy with feasting revelers and lit with torches every few yards. The patrician-funded tables have been set and loaded. You can barely make out the stars past the torch-glare. You dislike the city in its festive mask. You’re used to the nights being your time. A time of peace, when you can wander the city without the press of bodies on every side. Not completely isolated, but with a sense of mutual solitude when you encounter others.
Tonight Rome glows garish orange and gold, awash with drunken celebration. The air outside still smells of cloying perfume. If anything, it’s stronger out here. A group of musicians plays at the corner. A dozen people dance in the intersection before them. Tables sit in the streets, bedecked with serving platters overflowing with food. A slave stands by each table, filling any cups offered from barrels of wine beside them. Guards stand at attention at every intersection.
You approach the nearest table, the smell of honeyed ham drawing you in despite the crowd. Discarded crusts and cores crackle under your feet. You watch as half a neglected peach rolls off the table and spluches ripely onto the paving stones. Not a person here pays it any attention. You wonder if the feasters in the poorer sections of Rome are more careful, or if everyone is happy to gorge on abundance and revel in waste when someone else is paying. You think you’ll go see.
“Wine, sir?” asks the dark-skinned Egyptian slave at the head of this table. She smiles at you, lifting her ladle from the wine barrel. “This table is provided by the generosity of Marcus Verus, for all citizens of Rome.”
Down the street you spot two guards pushing an older man. They gesture angrily for him to leave. The old man is filthy, dressed in rags, his unkempt hair a nest of wiry grey snarls. You motion toward him.
“All the citizens of Rome?” you ask pointedly, handing her a cup.
The slave’s gaze travels down to the old man, then back to you. “I just serve the wine, sir.” She smiles sweetly.
You pop a cube of ham into your mouth, grab a loaf of bread, and go to follow the old man. You almost lose him, but a guiding whisper from the gods directs you down a side street, and after a cautious wide turn you find him in a blind alley, slouched against a wall. You also prefer the blind alleys. He sits with his head tilted back, his eyes searching the night sky. You glance up, pleased that the stars are so much more visible here. Yet… they seem a bit too close. Like they are leaning toward the earth. Glowering. The alley doesn’t feel as blind under their stare. You look away from them quickly. You have an earthly goal right now.
“Wha’d ya want?” the old man asks as you approach. He looks harmless. In fact, he looks broken. His eyes are sunken holes in a cracked face, his mouth hidden behind a straggly white bush of beard. You feel the pull in your chest, the imperative of the gods.
“I just come to share the peace.” The sounds of the crowd are a muted babble here, the notes of music a discordant play of echoes. You sit down beside him and offer him the loaf of bread.
“You come to take my peace, and this shit is all you offer?” The man smacks the bread away. “Get outta here. Ain’t no loaf of bread gonna buy my life.”
You settle in and take a sip from your cup. You study the too-close stars in the narrow strip of sky above. Perhaps you can help this man.
You will help.
“I’ve got my troubles too,” you say. “Maybe we can help each other.”
“What you gonna do, huh? Tell me to get to a temple? I’ve been to the priests, and they don’t do shit. They don’t care for shit.”
“I care.” You offer him the cup. He takes it and gulps deep, draining half of it before passing it back.
“Bullshit. No one cares. I was in Dacia, to claim their mines for Rome. I was in Britannia, fighting the barbarians and their monsters. All my life I fought. I lost my hand for the glory of Rome, cuz Rome promised she would care for me.” You look over, noticing for the first time that his left hand is clutched into a mangled fist, bent double into itself. “Then as soon as I ain’t useful no more, they throw me away like a lamed mule.” He blinks rapidly, his voice growing hoarse. “Don’t give me no fuckin’ bread. My son is dead, and my daughter is dead, and tomorrow my grand-daughter and me are gonna be thrown outta our room to die in the gutters. That’s fuckin’ gratitude. Rome was supposed to care, and we didn’t get shit.”
You know why you’re here. You know what you can do. You reach into your coin pouch and take out half its contents. The pay you earned by killing smugglers… and one ox-handler boy.
“We have each other.” You press the money into the man’s right hand. “We are all Rome,” you say, repeating a portion of Emperor Hadrian’s words from all those years ago. The words that drew you from your home and carried you to Jerusalem. “We are her power and her blood. She cares, because we do.”
The man looks down at the coins in his palm. He blinks fast, sucking in breath.
“Man, don’t do this to me. This ain’t nothin’ but a sick joke. My landlord will take this for back-rent and still kick me out. I need twice this, to pay next two weeks upfront.” He doesn’t hand the coins back though. He just stares at them, as his eyes overwell.
This was the gods’ doing in its entirety. They kept you half-conscious in your room all day, then detained you for hours, so that you would arrive at that table at exactly the right moment to see this old man harassed. You were given your pay moments before you saw him so you couldn’t blow it on anything else. Even the gods don’t want to give you the chance to fuck up anymore.
You take out everything you have left. The bonus pay, also arranged by the gods so you’d have exactly the amount you need. You add that to the coins in his hand. The old man looks up at you, disbelief and panic on his face. And the mad collision of the two that the destitute call ‘hope.’
“Mister, if you’re gonna do this, please, you can’t stop here. All I need is a little more, to feed my baby granddaughter. She’s almost nine months and the milk is so expensive now, I just need some more to keep her going. Don’t give me this if you’re just gonna leave me without no way to feed her. I can’t. I can’t take that.”
You don’t have any more to give. You’ve given him everything you have.
No. There is one more thing.
You take off one boot, reaching up into the toes. Between the inner and outer soles, forced into a slit you cut, lies a golden ring. It is a small, thin thing. Etched with Fidem on the outside, for Loyalty, and XXII on the inside, for your legion. Everyone in your century had one cast. It’s all you have left of the Deiotariana Legion. You don’t keep in contact with the other survivors.
It must be worth a bit. Not nearly enough to pay off Sextus’s loan. But probably enough for a lot of milk. You work the ring out and look it over in the moonlight. It is a hard bit of round darkness in your hand, nothing more. Then you add that to the coins in the old man’s hand.
“I, I don’t know how–” the old man breaks up. He climbs to his feet. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you.” He clutches the coins to his chest, takes a step toward the alley’s mouth. “I have to go,” he says. “I have to go pay my landlord, before he kicks my ass out.” He steps forward again, then spins around and grabs the bread off the ground. “Thank you. I have to go. I have to hurry. Thank you.”
And he’s off, running, or scampering, as befits an old weary man without any food in his belly, but with hope clutched in his hand.
You wonder how much of his story is true.
But he clearly needed the money far more than you did. Far more than your mother needs it. Your family will live. They should be ashamed to even complain. The gods never demand more than a man can give. Even if they did, you would give it anyway. Your spiritual debt can never be repaid, only deferred.
You slide your boot back on. You take your time lacing it. How will you break this news to your mother and brother? Coming home with even less than you left with. Thaddeus will say you fucked up again. Your mother will think it. They don’t understand the hurt out here in the world, the pain of others. They don’t care to fix it.
Three days. As you sit there worrying, the words of the Jew in Sextus’s office come back to you. He needed a translator, someone from the Germanic tribes. It’s a long shot, but you know where you can find a slave from Germania who’s fluent in Latin. An angry young woman with honey hair and rounded vowels.
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First line of next week’s chapter: “I need more food for the animals,”
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