Princes of the Universe, Part I

Discussion in 'Civ4 - Stories & Tales' started by Sisiutil, Oct 17, 2006.

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  1. TheArchduke

    TheArchduke Feeling at home..

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    Excellent update.

    Nice work building up suspense about Claudia at the end.
     
  2. Sisiutil

    Sisiutil All Leader Challenger

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    Ya gotta love cliffhangers as a way to keep the audience riveted. :D
     
  3. tthf

    tthf Chieftain

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    yes, riveted.... very.
    so when is the next update?
     
  4. Sisiutil

    Sisiutil All Leader Challenger

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    How's tomorrow grab ya? I just finished slapping my tax return together, which means I'm good for nothing tonight.
     
  5. tthf

    tthf Chieftain

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    thats great!
    yeah.. taxes... they sap the lifeforce outta ya.....
     
  6. Joxer

    Joxer Warlord

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    Ugh! I knew I should have waited to read this story until it was finished. This should be termed cruel and unusual punishment.
     
  7. Sisiutil

    Sisiutil All Leader Challenger

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    Chapter Eleven: Noble Men

    Part 13 – Order

    Roman soldiers wore sandals called caligae. They had heavy soles, into which were hammered over two dozen iron hobnails that held the multiple layers of leather together. This distinctive footwear made an unmistakeable sound when several hundred men wearing them marched in unison upon pavement. This was the sound that now reached Claudia and the mob, the sound of a legion on the march, making double-time and drawing nearer.

    The mob paused and grew silent, suddenly fearful, turning towards the sound, which echoed off of the walls of the houses on the upper Palatine Hill. The legionaries’ polished helmets appeared first, over the top of a low rise just a few dozen yards away. Then the soldiers came into view, helmets and armour gleaming in the sun, their shields held at their sides, swords slapping in scabbards against their muscular thighs. A century—no, two—no, more, an entire cohort, it had to be, six centuries strong!

    Leading them was a tall, dark-featured man with one eye covered by a patch and the hard, determined look of a stone-cold killer upon his face. He took in the scene before him—of the woman he loved confronted by a crowd of ruffians—and his face took on a look of such fury that every man in the mob who was watching him gasped. For if Minerva had confronted them first, here, now, was Mars, the ancient god of war. In the flesh. And looking very angry indeed.

    To Claudia Pulchra, however, he had never looked more magnificent.

    Lucius Rutullus pulled his sword from its scabbard. “PRESENT… ARMS!” he yelled.

    In one smooth motion and in complete unison, the entire cohort, veterans to a man, drew their swords with their right arms and swung their shields in front of their bodies with their left.



    “For-WARD!!” Lucius commanded, his sword pointing at the cowering mob.

    Roman legions never charged. For centuries they had consistently conquered enemy armies who attacked them in a disorganized rush. Their strength lay in unity; they disdained individual heroism if it came at the cost of the unit’s cohesion. So the legions did not rush into battle. Instead, they marched forward, inexorable, unstoppable. Throughout their continent, the sight of an approaching Roman wall of shields, spears, and swords inspired fear and respect.

    Mostly the former, in the current case of the mob standing in shocked silence before Claudia Pulchra’s front door. Confronted by such fearsome opposition, the mob’s puffed-up courage vanished in an instant. They tossed down the obviously-inadequate weapons they carried and ran for their lives. Claudia, watching the legionaries marching towards her, instinctively retreated into her own doorframe.

    “Lucius!” she called out as he passed by her. He came to a stop, forcing his men to sidestep around him. He turned and walked back to her, but once he got close enough and fully realized how she was dressed, he stopped short, his one eye opened wide in shock.

    How many times, in all the years that he’d known her, had he thought of her as a goddess? Too many to count. It was a mere figure of speech, of course. But here, standing before him, was a veritable goddess: Minerva herself, in the flesh, wearing the armour and weaponry of his dead friend and the face of the only woman he’d ever loved. His mouth dropped open. He was utterly incapable of speech, let alone thought. She was too magnificent for either.

    Claudia suddenly blushed as she watched his reaction. They had not seen one another in years. She cursed silently. Why did their first meeting after so long have to be when she was so… unwomanly? She wanted to throw the shield and sword to the pavement, tear the helmet and weapons belt from her body, so suddenly ashamed was she.

    “Claudia…” he said in a reverent whisper.

    “I…” Claudia said hesitantly. Oh, how to explain her scandalous appearance? “The mob… they were…” she stammered, gesturing with the sword in the direction that the ruffians had run. She then became embarrassed by the fact that she was holding a weapon in her hand. Utterly unused to the maneuver, she struggled to shove the unwieldy thing back into its scabbard.

    “Right, yes,” muttered Lucius, still taken aback by her mere presence, let alone by her extraordinary appearance. He suddenly recalled how she’d been holding off an entire mob of determined men by herself. “Er… I’m… here to rescue you,” he said awkwardly.

    “Really?” she said, looking up from the stubborn scabbard she was struggling with. “Well… thank you,” she said, nodding.

    Lucius coughed, then his attention was drawn by a groaning sound emanating from the ground behind him. He turned and looked down at a man lying upon the pavement, blood slowly oozing from a gash in his scalp.

    “Oh,” Claudia said, noticing where his gaze had wandered. “That’s Saturninus.”

    “Huh. Looks like his own men turned on him,” Lucius remarked, his voice heavy with contempt.

    “No, I, um… knocked him on the head. With a spear,” Claudia admitted. Lucius turned to her, gaping. “Twice,” she added, and shrugged. “It, uh, broke. The spear, that is.”

    Oh, what must he think of me?
    Claudia despaired silently. Dressed like a man, fighting off a mob of ruffians, engaging in acts of violence! I, a patrician noblewoman!

    Lucius could not believe what he was hearing. Claudia Pluchra, the finest example of Roman womanhood he had ever known, had single-handedly taken down the leader of the riots plaguing the Roman Empire’s cities with her own hand. His awe regarding her grew to a measure he hadn’t thought possible. He felt small in her presence—and useless. Why had he and his men rushed back to Rome and then up the Palatine Hill? It appeared that she’d had the situation well in hand without him.

    The Fourteenth Legion’s primus pilus, Gnaeus Decumius, came jogging back up the hill towards them.

    “They’ve scattered sir,” he reported to Lucius. “Bolted back to their holes like the rats they are. Didn’t have to kill any, Caesar’ll be happy to hear, though the boys wouldn’t have minded. Scum, the lot of them! Oh. Ma’am,” he said, with a quick nod towards Claudia, then did a double-take as he saw how she was dressed. Claudia wished she could crawl under a rock and die.

    “Well,” she said. “I should go back inside and get out of… all this.”

    “Of course,” Lucius said, nodding. But neither of them moved. They held one another’s gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then Claudia turned, opened her door, and disappeared inside her house.

    “What… who… was that?!?” Gnaeus Decumius asked, still staring in awe at Claudia’s closed door.

    “Claudia. Pulchra. Primia,” Lucius said reverently.

    “Really?” Gnaeus Decumius said, suddenly remembering all the rumours that had long swirled around his commander and this woman, rumours he usually disregarded and had often disputed. But the way they’d looked at each other just now made him wonder. “Well,” Decumius said, “that’s a relief. For a moment I thought Minerva herself was among us!” He shuddered then, battle-hardened centurion that he was, at the thought of one of the old, inscrutable gods taking human form.

    “You and me both,” Lucius murmured, then he and his primus pilus knelt down to drag the groaning form of Lucius Appuleius Saturninus off to the Lautumiae Prison.

    ***



    Marcus Phillippus Cinna sat in his study in his mansion on the Palatine Hill and sighed heavily. Things had been going so well, and then Caesar’s legions had shown up in every city, put down the insurrections, and spoiled everything. He took some consolation from the fact that no one could connect him to anything; he had never exhorted the crowds to riot and had not participated in any attacks. How could he? He was a patrician, part of the community that Saturninus had targeted! That mere fact also gave him a considerable amount of deniability, in the unlikely event that any accusations should be levelled at him.

    There was only one thing to do: lie low and wait for another opportunity. Apparently Caesar and his supporters had more drastic changes to the fabric of Roman society planned—the removal of protectionist barriers to trade being one. Cinna was certain that the changes, though sensible to anyone with a little foresight, could be used to foment dissent and lead to more anarchy. Yes, his day would come, he was sure of it.

    There was a knock at his study door. Frowning, he turned towards it; he wasn’t expecting any visitors.

    “Yes?” Cinna said impatiently. “What is it?”

    The door opened and his steward, Cythegus, walked in quickly; his face was ashen.

    “Domine,” the man said, “you have a visitor…”

    But the servant never got the chance to announce the visitor’s name, for just then, he strode into the room as if he owned it. And once present, the man needed no introduction. There was no mistaking the short, thinning hair, the hard, shrewd face, and especially those piercing ice-blue eyes.

    Caesar.

    He was still wearing his leather riding cuirass and kilt, and the glow of perspiration on his skin indicated that he had come to Cinna’s home straight from a long ride. Caesar walked into the room and sat down in the chair on the other side of Cinna’s desk. Behind him entered two more men, both in full legionary armour: Lucius Rutullus Lepidus, commander of the Fourteenth Legion, and his primus pilus, Gnaeus Decumius. Behind them, outside the door, Cinna could discern several formidable-looking lictors, clad in scarlet tunics and bearing the fasces, the long, bundle of wooden rods that were symbols of imperial power. The fasces, ominously, had axes within the bundle, signifying the magistrate presiding over these lictors—obviously Caesar himself—had the ultimate power over life and death. The looks on the faces of all the men were hard and determined.

    Lucius Rutullus in particular was glaring at him with his one remaining eye. Cinna realized that it had been several years since he had last set eyes upon Lucius, and the changes were readily apparent. The man standing behind Caesar was now a battle-hardened veteran, a man who had no hesitation about killing an enemy, and had grown quite proficient in that work.

    “Well, this is an unexpected pleasure, Caesar,” Cinna said smoothly even as his guts churned. “May I enquire as to the purpose of this visit?”

    “This is not a social occasion, Marcus Phillippus Cinna,” Caesar said plainly. “You are under arrest. You’ll be taken to the Lautumiae Prison, there to await trial.”

    Cinna’s eyes widened. “On what charge?”

    “Sedition and treason,” Caesar told him, his face grim. “Murder, as well—patricide, specifically. The penalty for these crimes, as you well know, is death.” Cinna stared at Caesar blankly for a moment. Then he smiled and laughed. Caesar’s severe expression did not change. “I do not recall making a jest, Marcus Phillippus Cinna,” he said.

    “Of course not,” Cinna replied. “Are you really going to try to connect me to Saturninus and the rioting? Come now! Where is your proof?”

    “Your friends Saturninus and Glauica are singing like canaries,” Caesar informed him.

    “Lies,” Cinna said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

    “Since it’s obvious that they will be executed as well, they have no reason to lie,” Caesar said. “We also have testimony from servants and neighbours regarding your meetings with them prior to and during the riots. And a very disturbing story from your father’s steward.”

    Cinna’s lips pressed together into a grim line. “You’ll never make the charges stick,” he said, then smiled confidently. “I’ll hire the best advocate in Rome to defend me!”

    “No you will not,” a clear voice announced from outside the study door.

    In walked a smallish middle-aged man with a slender body and a slightly over-sized head. No one made fun of Marcus Tillius Cicero’s physical appearance, however. He may not have had an illustrious military career, but he had proven the sharpness of his mind and his tongue in Rome’s legal courts far too many times for anyone to take him lightly. He looked down his nose at Cinna as though the younger man were something foul he had just scraped off the bottom of his shoe.

    “You will not be defended by the best legal advocate in Rome,” Cicero told Cinna. “I will be prosecuting you, not defending you, Marcus Phillippus Cinna! And I plan on making this case one of the highlights of my career!”
    Caesar began to smile a little as he watched the smug self-confidence fade from Cinna’s face. “He insisted on handling your prosecution himself,” the Roman leader told Cinna quietly. “Cicero and I may disagree about a great many things, but we are both patriots.”

    “Oh, thank you for that, Gaius Julius!” Cicero said, brows rising on his high forehead. “I shall be reminding you of that remarkable admission for years to come!”

    “I would be disappointed if you did not, Marcus Tillius,” Caesar said, grinning.

    Cinna was speechless. The colour had vanished from his face. Watching him, Lucius could not resist getting in at least one verbal shot. He was certain, after all, that it was Cinna who had sent Saturninus and his mob after Claudia.

    “I understand the view from the Tarpeian Rock is quite spectacular,” Lucius remarked.

    The Tarpeian Rock was the summit of a high, steep cliff at one end of the Capitoline Hill in the centre of Rome. It overlooked the Forum Romanum--and several needle-sharp rocks directly below the precipice. Being flung from the Tarpeian Rock down to those rocks was a common form of execution, especially for patricians who were convicted of some grievous offence that entailed a sentence of death.

    “So I hear,” Caesar said, a grim smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “Though no one gets to enjoy it for very long.”

    Cinna listened to these verbal exchanges among his adversaries silently and with growing despair. His hands were shaking. He took several heaving breaths; then suddenly his face folded and he broke down in tears. His shaking hands rose to cover his face.

    Every other man in the room regarded him in disgust. Caesar rose to go.

    “Oh, Jupiter!” the leader of Rome declared as he stood. “Pull yourself together, man! In spite of how repugnant you are, you are still a Roman and a patrician!” But these words only made Cinna’s weeping increase in volume. Caesar raised his hands in resignation. “Gnaeus Decumius, escort this mentula to the Lautumiae.” Then he left the room, Cicero and Lucius following at his heels.

    “Now, now, dry those tears, precious,” Decumius said, a nasty grin on his face as he and the lictors advanced upon Cinna. “Do us a favour and try not to soil yourself again.”
     
  8. gerg_861

    gerg_861 Chieftain

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    I have been lurking here for a few months, but this last installment was so satisfying that I finally had to chime in and say that I have really been enjoying this story. Thank you for all of the hard work.
     
  9. Hackapell

    Hackapell Rhetorician

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    I also have been lurking here a while, and this is one of the greatest stories ever written. Please post the next installment soon and keep it up!:goodjob: :thumbsup: :clap: :clap: :clap: :hatsoff: :thanx: :thanx: :thanx:
     
  10. Gaius Octavius

    Gaius Octavius Deity

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    I like this story. Keeps your attention, has an epic feel to it, and well-written in general. How many parts altogether will there be?
     
  11. Sisiutil

    Sisiutil All Leader Challenger

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    Thanks! The next installment, followed by a brief epilogue, will be the last in this particular "chapter". As for the entire epic--sheesh, I haven't even written some of the later chapters yet. Let's just say, though, that the game was played all the way through, so I do know how the story turns out. I've actually written the ending. I just have to go back and fill in all the details on how I got there.
     
  12. wsi22

    wsi22 Chieftain

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    Superb story! Can't wait for the next update!
     
  13. biggamer132

    biggamer132 King

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    Oh man, I can't wait to see how Lucius ends up. General? Consul?
     
  14. tthf

    tthf Chieftain

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    i'm running out of words of praise.....
    yet another chapter of great quality!
     
  15. Sisiutil

    Sisiutil All Leader Challenger

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    Funny you should mention that. I liked the character so much that I couldn't leave him be; a much older Lucius makes a cameo in the next story.
     
  16. vormuir

    vormuir Prince

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    This is good fun, Sisiutl. I stayed up for an hour last night reading it.

    Colleen McCullough is great, but you do have to bring a grain of salt; she's totally in love with Caesar, so all the other Romans tend to be "good" or "bad" in terms of how they relate to the Great Man himself. This is why I like the first two books best -- she's not in love with either Marius or Sulla, so she's much more even-handed. I especially like her depiction of Sulla as a cynical realist with a fatalistic streak. It's interesting, and also fits with what we really know of him.

    A couple of book recommendations. If you like historical novels generally, let me strongly recommend Mary Renault, especially "The King Must Die", "The Mask of Apollo", and "The Last of the Wine". These books are from the 1950s but most of the history still holds up, and the writing is excellent.

    Second recommendation: I don't know if you like fantasy, but if you're willing to give it a try, check out George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" books. There are four so far, and they're big, fat, roach-killer volumes full of political intrigue and plotting. The fantasy elements are minor in the first couple of books, and the characters are inspired by (not based on... inspired by) various medieval historical figures. If you like the characters and plots of McCullough, you might enjoy these.

    (But I'm almost sure you'll like Renault. Good history, good writing.)

    cheers,


    Waldo
     
  17. rabidveggie

    rabidveggie King

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    When will you be posting the next installment? I hate when I come on in the morning and there is no new post. :mad:
    Also that last installment was pretty good keep up the good work. :goodjob:
     
  18. Sisiutil

    Sisiutil All Leader Challenger

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    Thanks! I agree with your assessment of McCullough. Some historical figures such as Cato, Cicero, and Spartacus come off much better in other sources than in her version of events. Nevertheless, what I most enjoy about her work is that she does such a good job of bringing a long-vanished world and culture back to life.

    Besides, I can forgive her virtual love affair with Caesar. He's one of those rare people, like Alexander, Napoleon, or Abraham Lincoln, whose abilities so outstrip those of the average person that it takes your breath away and makes you wonder if they're really human. They tend to inspire great passion--love or hate. No wonder few of them ever die peacefully in old age.

    Interesting that you should recommend Renault. I read The Last of the Wine a few years ago and quite enjoyed it. I should get around to reading some of her other books. I recently read The Virtues of War by Stephen Pressfield, which is a life of Alexander. I enjoyed it but found it a rather short treatment of such a monumental life. IIRC Renault has a weighty trilogy devoted to the life of Alexander, so I may read that next once I'm finished rereading McCullough.

    You're all getting spoiled! I went from posting every month or so to posting every couple of days. As I mentioned before, Lucius' story formed in my head very quickly and flowed out of me in a rush. That does happen to me every now and then, but usually I just plod along.

    Fortunately I've now pretty much finished the next set of installments, so I should be able to keep up the current pace a while longer.
     
  19. vormuir

    vormuir Prince

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    Funny you should mention her Alexander trilogy. That's IMO her weakest work, and for exactly the same reason: she falls head over heels crazy for Alex, and really loses all sense of objectivity. To the point where both the writing and the history start to suffer.

    Don't get me wrong -- those books are still worth reading. Even weak Renault is still good. But they're not as good as her other stuff.

    If you do pick them up, I'd say the first one, which deals with his life up to the death of Philip, is probably the best. _Fire From Heaven_, that is.

    Lincoln: if you're a Lincoln fan, check out Doris Kearns Goodwin's _Team of Rivals_. It's the best Lincoln book of the last ten years. Looks at him from the perspective of his Cabinet. Wonderful stuff.

    Hmm... as long as we're talking biography, have you tried William Manchester's _The Last Lion_? That's a bio of Winston Churchill up to about 1933. You might think that was like reading a prequel, but it's wonderful. Churchill had a really interesting life even before he saved civilization. It may or may not be the "best" Churchill bio, but it's certainly the most fun to read.


    Waldo
     
  20. Sisiutil

    Sisiutil All Leader Challenger

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    Chapter Eleven: Noble Men

    Part 14 – First Business



    As the legions appeared in the empire’s cities, the riots ended. The people re-emerged from their homes where they’d hidden, and the normal routine of daily life resumed. Caesar and Catullus Senior were hailed both for the victory in the Aztec war and for restoring order. Once the Plebeian Assembly and the Senate resumed meeting, they both passed the lex Fides Libertas. All religions were now equal before the law; and once they saw that the world did not end, nor open up and swallow them whole, people began to realize that this was a good thing.

    The Fourteenth Legion de-mobilized, the bulk of its members retiring from the service, including Lucius Rutullus Lepidus. Now that he was nearly thirty years of age and had the means to do so, it was time for him to begin a different type of public service than that in Rome’s armed forces. In a few short months he would be entering the Senate, the first step in what he intended to be a long and illustrious political career. That meant he had several matters demanding his attention.

    Taking Caesar’s hint, he’d hired Quintus Servilius Caepio the moment the clerk had been released from service himself and had put him in charge of his accounts, especially his new gold mine. With Caepio in charge of his new fortune, Lucius was certain that the books would be kept in proper order, right down to the last denarius. After combing through the records of the formerly Aztec gold mine, Caepio had informed his new employer that he would, within a few years, be one of the richest men in Rome. In fact, the gold mine was already turning a profit before Lucius finished his last military duities.

    This was good news for Lucius in many respects. An aspiring politician had to keep up appearances, so some of his newfound wealth had to be spent—or, as Caepio put it, invested—to accrue social and political capital rather than the economic variety. Lucius had therefore purchased a fashionable house on Rome’s Palatine Hill. He also bought a home nearby for his mother, and invested his two younger sisters with handsome dowries, so he knew he’d be needing his new house’s study to not only meet with his clients, but also with his sisters’ suitors.

    In addition, his house required servants. Cuicatl had come back to Rome with him, refusing to part ways with the Roman soldier who had saved her from selling her body on the war-torn streets of her home town. He installed her as the maid in his new household. But a maid, reflected Lucius Rutullus, needed a male counterpart, and he had someone in mind.

    “Me, sir?” Gnaeus Decumius said, astonished. “But I don’t know the first thing about being a… a… butler

    “You can learn,” Lucius told him confidently. “How hard can it be, compared to fighting for your life on a battlefield? And I know you’ll run the household with military precision. Right, centurion?”

    The former legionary straightened to attention, his gut in, his chest out. “SIR!” He’d been given an order by his commanding officer—for he’d always think of Lucius in that way—and he would do his utmost to carry it out.
    Gnaeus Decumius knew, as well, what his first duty had to be. For though Lucius Rutullus had thrown himself full-force into his new life, there was one crucial part of it that he was neglecting.

    Thus, on the very first day of his new job, right after Lucius finished breakfast, Gnaeus Decumius greeted him bearing a gleaming white tunic and a toga that Cuicatl had whitened even further by infusing it with chalk. The tunic bore the broad purple stripe of a senator on its right-hand side.

    “Time for you to get dressed, sir!” Decumius announced. “Big day today!”

    Lucius stared at the toga and especially the tunic in surprise. “I don’t officially become a senator until next month…” he objected.

    “Tish! A mere formality, and you need to look your best,” Decumius said as he helped Lucius out of his ordinary tunic and into the white one, then wrapped the toga around his new employer’s tall, muscular form, settling its folds into the crook of his left arm.

    Decumius stepped back to admire his handiwork. To look good in a toga, a man had to be tall, lean of hip, and broad of shoulder. Fortunately, Lucius was all three.

    “Very distinguished, sir!” the former Centurion said.

    “Why is today a big day?” Lucius asked, eyeing his new butler suspiciously.

    “Today is a big day,” Decumius said, “because you’re going to see her today. No more putting it off, which is what you’ve been doing. Besides, this place needs a woman’s touch, if I do say so myself. No offense to Cuicatl, mind; the girl’s a lovely singer and an excellent maid, but she can’t decorate worth spit.”

    “You should marry that girl when she’s of age,” Lucius said with a grin. The former centurion’s uncharacteristic blush told Lucius that he’d been thinking the same thing.

    “Here now, don’t you go changing the subject!” Decumius said. “It’s not about my marriage today, it’s about yours

    “Gnaeus Decumius…” Lucius started to say, shaking his head.

    “No! No more excuses!” Decumius said angrily, walking behind Lucius and giving him a gentle shove between the shoulder blades. “Get moving, soldier! Up and at ‘em!”

    Lucius soon found himself being pushed and hectored down his hallway towards his front door. Cuicatl was there, holding the door open and looking at Lucius sternly as Decumius gave him a friendly but firm shove out into the street.

    “And don’t come back here until you’ve been to see her!” he said, then closed the door.

    Lucius stood in the street, looking around in amused bewilderment. He had, after all, just been kicked out of his own home by his servants—as though he were a hapless character in one of the comedic plays he’d enjoyed as a youth.

    “Plautus would have loved this,” he muttered.

    Decumius leaned out of one of the front windows. “Come on now sir, get going,” he pleaded. “The worst she can do is say no!” Then he popped back inside.

    Lucius took a deep breath, shook his head while smiling ruefully, and set off in the direction of Claudia’s house, which was further up the Palatine Hill than his own. Gnaeus Decumius, he thought, you have several outstanding qualities, but an imagination is not one of them! There are many things far worse that Claudia can do to me than merely saying ‘no’!

    As he had a long walk up to her front door, he had time to consider them all. She could slam that same door in his face, accusing him of letting her husband die. Or she could laugh in his face, his miserable wreck of a face, asking why she’d ever hitch her wagon to a battle-scarred, used-up warhorse like him. Or, worst of all, she could simply turn away and quietly but firmly tell him that she never wanted to see him again.

    More than once he considered abandoning what he thought must surely be a fool’s errand. She hadn’t remarried. And why should she? A Roman widow, especially a wealthy one such as she, enjoyed a certain amount of freedom and independence that no mere wife or daughter could ever know. Her paterfamilias could suggest that she remarry, but custom dictated that he could no longer force her, not that Claudia’s father, that most Roman of Romans, ever would, or would need to.

    They’d been in love when they were mere children, Lucius reflected as he climbed the Palatine. That was years ago. He’d been through a war. She’d been through a marriage, and widowhood. He acknowledged that his feelings hadn’t changed, but had to allow that perhaps hers had.

    He passed several people on the street, and their reaction to him didn’t help his mood. He saw them looking at him, heard them whisper behind him as he passed on. It was the eye patch, he thought. That, and the other many scars visible on the few parts of his body not hidden by the tunic and toga—and those, of course, concealed still more.

    Even after all he had accomplished, he was still too humble to realize that the people on the street recognized him, and were staring in awe at the greatest hero of the Aztec war; he didn’t realize that they regarded his battle scars as marks of honour, especially that lost eye, for the story of the gallant way in which it had been sacrificed was fast becoming legend. As Catullus Senior had told Caesar, people were adding the cognomen ‘Aztecus’ to his name.

    But he knew none of this, would not know it for several days, would not understand it for several months and, as another sign of his humility, would never get used to it. Instead, his thoughts grew darker. What was he, except a malformed monster? And here he was, climbing up a hill to the dwelling of a goddess. For that vision of Claudia as Minerva, so brave and resplendent in her late husband’s helmet, shield, and weaponry as she faced down an angry mob single-handed, had not left him. It had been seared in to his consciousness, and it only served to remind him how high above her he was—and how out of his reach.

    Thus, by the time he reached Claudia’s door, he was in an utterly dejected state, having reviewed the principal reasons she had to reject him as a suitor, and knowing there were more besides. So he stood before her door, intimidated once again by the grandness of her house. Even though this was not the one where she had grown up and where her father had so gently broken his heart all those years ago, it was just as grand. The Pulchurii and the Catullii did not lack money, unlike his own family. At least until just recently.

    Unexpectedly, at that moment, an aphorism from Confucius entered his mind: The man of virtue makes the difficulty to be overcome his first business, and success only a subsequent consideration. And how difficult, he chided himself, was it to simply knock on a door? Which he promptly raised his hand and did.

    The middle-aged manservant who answered a moment later glanced at him, blinked, and bowed respectfully.

    “I am…” Lucius began to say.

    “Yes, I know,” the man assured him. “This way, sir,” he said, and led Lucius into the atrium, then into a study, which was empty save for an orderly desk and several well-stocked bookshelves.

    The servant turned and whispered to a maid, who scurried off after a wide-eyed glance at Lucius. Then the man lit a lamp, bowed, and left him alone in the study.

    Lucius glanced at the desk, and noticed the ink in a small bottle upon it, and several quills with freshly-cut nubs; he read the titles of the books, and immediately noticed works by Plautus and Seneca among them. He took a deep breath as memories flooded his mind, of lazy afternoons spent on the shore of a lake, sunlight sparkling on the water, a boy and a girl chatting and laughing without a single care in the world as they read plays to one another. It seemed a lifetime ago, now—more like a dream than something he’d lived through.

    He stirred himself from his reverie and looked at some of the other books, recognizing titles by Confucius and his esteemed friend Mencius. He then smiled as he realized that this was her study. It was unusual for a proper Roman woman to have a study of her own, but the fact that Claudia had one did not surprise or scandalize him at all; in fact, he found the idea pleasing, for he had always admired her keen mind as much as her beauty.
    He’d lost an eye in the war, but his ears had lost none of their sharpness. He was snooping about in the study for any clue he could glean as to how welcome he would be in her house—and in her heart; at the same time, he kept his ears perked for any audible clues of the same nature. Thus, from across the courtyard, he heard the maid open a door and say nothing more than, ‘He’s here.’

    So he was expected. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? He couldn’t decide. He stopped looking around and stood stock still, facing the study door at full attention as though he was still a legionary, standing on a parade ground. He resisted the urge to fidget. A toga did not tolerate fidgeting very well, after all.

    A few moments later, the door of the study opened, and the manservant walked in, followed by Claudia. At the sight of her, all his breath left his body. When he’d seen her for the first time in years a few weeks before, looking for all the world like the ancient Roman goddess of war and wisdom, he’d been too distracted—not to mention awed—to see her for who she was. Now she stood before him clad not in armour and weaponry, but in a long, simple dress of bleached wool. He felt no less awestruck than he had before, however.

    Gone was the girl he had known; she was a full-grown woman now, and all the more beautiful for it. Her complexion was as unblemished as ever, her skin still creamy and glowing as if lit from within, her auburn hair lustrous. She had not borne any children and her long white dress did not do much to hide the benefit of that to her figure, which was just a little fuller than he remembered, but in all the right places.

    “That will be all, Titus,” she said evenly to the servant, her face impassive, every inch the patrician. No hint as to her feelings were betrayed by her placid countenance. The door closed behind her. They were alone.

    Their eyes met, but they said nothing. Lucius swallowed hard and fought off a sudden urge to retreat—to mumble some apology and vanish out the door. But he stood his ground. He had to see it through. He drew a breath, urged himself to speak the words he’d rehearsed so often on the voyage home, words that were suddenly so difficult to remember.

    Then he saw her eyes shimmer, saw the slightest tremble of her lower lip. A single tear spilled from her right eye. And Lucius, suddenly horrified that he should be the cause of any sorrow on her part, was struck dumb. He could not speak, could not move.

    But she moved. In a flash, Claudia threw herself at him, her Roman reserve disappearing in an instant as more tears spilled from those hazel eyes he loved so much. Suddenly she was pressed against him, her arms around his broad shoulders, her face pressed against his, her breasts crushed against his chest. Her body heaved with sobs, and she clung to him as though she were drowning and only he could save her. Instinctively he wrapped his strong arms around her slender body, offering what comfort he could, before he, too, succumbed and was sobbing as well.

    They wept for the loss of a good man they had both loved. They wept for the loss of so many years when they were not and could not be together. They wept for the experiences they had been through, for the tender innocence they could never regain. And they wept because they were, finally, united, and because it was so good and so sweet to simply be alive.

    Then her lips found his, and the flow of tears began to ebb as they gave in to a passion born so many years before and so long denied. Without being fully aware that they had done so, they left the study and found themselves in her bedroom. She closed the door behind them, and in an instant his toga and tunic were on the floor, her dress next to them. Over the course of the next hour, she kissed every scar that his many battles had left upon his body—even beneath that eye patch, just to prove to him that it didn’t bother her one bit. Then she kissed the parts of his body that weren’t scarred. He returned the favour soon afterwards.

    As they lay together some time later, their ardour cooling, naked bodies entwined, she raised her head, propping it up with her hand, and shot him a look of cool patrician anger.

    “You’re a fool, Lucius Rutullus,” she said. His good eye opened wide as he looked back at her in shock. It wasn’t the sort of thing a man expected to hear at a moment like that. “Do you honestly think me so naïve that I am unaware of the simple fact that people die in a war?” she said, the subtlest of tremors in her voice. Suddenly ashamed, he turned away from her. She reached out, took gentle but firm hold of his chin, and forced him to look into her eyes again. “And explain to me how, after eight years of active service in Rome’s legions, that you could be ignorant of that fact? Did you really think I’d blame you for his death?”

    He didn’t answer her. She sighed. “Well, I didn’t,” she said. “But you blamed yourself. More fool you. I can forgive that foolishness on your part, though. What I find harder to forgive is nearly four years passing without a single word from you! Do you know how many nights I laid in this bed, sleepless, worrying about you, having to rely on others for news about you, to know if you were dead or alive?” Though her voice shook with the frustration and the anger she had felt, her hand caressed his cheek tenderly as she spoke.

    “I’m sorry,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “I wanted to write to you… I picked up paper and quill so often, but…” He sighed heavily. “People think I’m a brave man, but I can be a great coward sometimes.”

    “You’re no coward,” she said, shaking her head as she stroked his cheek. “You’re just too damned hard on yourself.” A rueful smile appeared on her lovely face. “I wrote you letters, you know. Dozens… no, hundreds of them.”

    He frowned at her in surprise. “I never got them!” he said, bewildered.

    “Because I never sent them,” she explained. The fingers of her right hand began to idly toy with the dark curls of his hair, twirling them about with her nails and fingertips. “I know you, Lucius. I knew what you were going through. And I knew you had to work it out on your own. I just didn’t think it would take you so long.” Her fingers stopped moving, and she raised her head slightly as she favoured him with a look he could only think to describe as regal. “Beyond that, I am a patrician noblewoman. I do not beg, Lucius Rutullus. Not even for you. You would do well to remember that.”

    He stared at her for some time before he recovered the ability to speak. “You take my breath away, Claudia Pulchra.” He paused a moment, then smiled. “My Minerva,” he said.

    She blinked in surprise. “Minerva?”

    “That how you looked, that day,” he said, grinning. “During the riots. Holding off those curs all by yourself.”

    She gasped and then buried her face in the crook of his arm. “Oh, I wish you’d never seen me like that!” she said miserably.

    “Why not?” he asked, incredulous. “You looked like a goddess—like Minerva herself. You were magnificent!”

    She raised her head. “I was?” she asked. He nodded his head enthusiastically. Still, she frowned, uncharacteristically uncertain of herself. “You didn’t think me… unwomanly?”

    His eye opened wide, then gazed down at her naked body. “I could never, in a million years, ever make such an egregious error regarding your gender,” he said with a grin.

    She smiled. “I was rather magnificent that day, wasn’t I?” she said brightly, giving her bed-tousled auburn locks a shake.

    “You’re magnificent every day,” he said lovingly.

    She pecked him on the cheek, the noblewoman retreating, the girl he’d known coming to the fore. “Compliments are good. I’ll have you know that I expect to have a lifetime filled with them.”

    “You’ll get that,” he said, with a laugh, then laughed louder still.

    “What’s so funny, you fool?” she asked him, smiling broadly.

    “With, er, everything else that’s happened,” he said, one eyebrow raised, “I’ve nearly forgotten to fulfill the purpose of my visit.”

    Moving with a speed and agility that told Claudia how formidable he must have been on the battlefield, Lucius shifted his body from beneath hers, rose from his reclining position, and then nimbly jumped over her, eliciting a squeal of surprise and a girlish giggle from her in the process. He came to rest on the floor on her side of the bed, where he dropped to one knee and took hold of both her hands in his own as she sat up.

    “I love you, Claudia Pulchra,” he said, suddenly very serious. “I love you with all my heart. Will you marry me?”

    She tortured him by taking a deep breath, frowning and pursing her lips thoughtfully, and rolling her eyes to look up towards the ceiling. After a moment that seemed like an eternity, she sighed and shrugged her shoulders.

    “Well, all right,” she answered in a resigned tone. When she looked down and saw the shocked expression on his face, she broke out into peals of laughter and fell back on the bed.

    “Why you little…” he growled. He rose and was on top of her in a flash, reaching for the places where he knew she was ticklish, making her writhe and squeal beneath him.

    “I can see you know,” she said breathlessly once he’d relented in his attack, “that you’re in the presence of your new commanding officer.”

    He frowned. “How so?”

    “Certain parts of you are standing at attention,” she said, moving her hips beneath his.

    He smiled hungrily while a low growl rumbled in his chest. He lowered his head, and their lips met yet again.

    They were married a month later, the day after he entered the Senate, and it seemed as though all of Rome turned out to watch the ceremony uniting one of the city’s greatest war heroes with one of its greatest beauties. A crowd of thousands followed them to his home, cheering as he carried her over the threshold in the age-old Roman tradition. The crowd stood outside, crooning a few well-worn love songs—including a couple of bawdy, explicit ones, another Roman tradition—before respectfully leaving the couple alone in their new home and in one another’s arms.

    He rested there in his marriage bed later that night, with the woman he’d always loved laying upon his chest, a son, unbeknownst to them yet, freshly conceived within her womb. His future assured, his family’s honour and position restored, and his place in the world at long last resolved, Lucius Rutullus Lepidus newly-cognominated Aztecus, for the first time in his life, finally experienced a lingering moment of genuine peace.

     
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