Book title in original: Cooke R. Cameron. Rome: Tempest of the Legion

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R. Cameron Cooke

Rome: Tempest of the Legion

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“It is pleasant, when the winds trouble the waters over a great sea, to gaze from the shore upon the tribulation of another.”

- Lucretius

I

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A ribbon of smoke trailed up from the central square of the seaside town and was quickly lost in the low clouds. It was winter, and with it had come the storms of the season. An endless gray mass drifted over the inland hills dotted with white marble temples of centuries past, over the red tiled roofs of the town, and finally out to sea, like a great fleet of the sky embarking on a voyage to far off lands.

Like the clouds, gloom hung over the wet streets of the town. A dreary, cold drizzle had sent most of the inhabitants retreating to their huts, the chimneys of which coughed out smoke from the warm cooking fires within.

Striding down the main thoroughfare, one might be drawn further by the aromas of freshly baked bread and grilled fish as the midday meal was prepared in dozens of homes. But upon reaching the square, any kindling appetite would be quickly suppressed by the repulsive stench that abounded there. It was not the reek of the fishing wharf, nor of the men crowded aboard the fleet of canvas-shrouded warships riding at anchor on the rain-spattered bay. Nor was it the streaming gutters, winding and weaving through the streets, conveying the town’s putrid waste to the adjacent river. No, none of these could match the odor that was distinct amongst all others, and never forgotten once sensed.

It was the nauseating stench of burning human flesh.

A small gathering stood a respectable distance from a smoldering pyre in the center of the square. They watched as the hastily assembled stack of damp cordwood struggled to take hold in the drizzle. Even now, as the ceremony reached its third hour, the tightly wrapped corpse atop the pyre had only been singed, a few flames licking at the head and torso. The fire was as unimpressive as the number that had turned out to watch it.

Two women stood among the observers, both wearing Roman style dresses beneath wool-lined cloaks and hoods. But while one wore the plain habit of an estate slave, the other was bedecked in a striped tiger-skin cloak, its fashion denoting the affluent pedigree of its wearer.

“Oh, my lady Calpurnia,” the young slave woman uttered with audible exasperation. She had the bronze skin of an easterner, and a face that looked as though it had never been touched with a smile or any form of amusement. “I told him to build it properly, that your great father might be ushered to the spirit world swiftly. I told him all dry wood, my lady. I paid that Greek fool ten denarii for it, and look what he has done.”

“It is fine, Marjanita,” Calpurnia said absently as she stared fixedly on the pyre. Unlike the slave woman, she had a much lighter complexion, and softness to her features that showed great care and nurturing.

“The villain stole your money, mistress,” Marjanita said hotly. “And to do so on such an occasion as this – have they no shame in this land? Say the word and I shall slit his throat this very night.”

Calpurnia did not respond, nor did she consciously hear what her handmaid was saying. She simply covered her face with the dangling sleeves of her headdress and watched as her father’s remains were ever so slowly consumed.

In spite of the pathetic attendance, it was a formal ceremony, with a Roman priest presiding, chanting and gesticulating and sending blessings with her father’s ashes as they floated skyward. It was all official – all very Roman – but this was not Rome. Aside from a few Roman officers, even fewer Senate officials, and a handful of local Greek magistrates, this village might just as well have dotted the coast of Anatolia rather than the Ionian shore of Greece. It was a pitiful substitute for such a distinguished man.

Calpurnia warily eyed a group of spectators on the far side of the pyre. Through the licking flames she saw a face poised in an almost contemptuous gaze as it watched her father burn. The man was tall, round-faced, gray-headed, and beneath his open cloak wore the purple-trimmed toga of a Roman senator. Calpurnia knew him to be Senator Gaius Fabius Postumus, one of her father’s longtime political opponents, and she wondered at the reason for his presence here. Had he come all the way from Thessalonica merely to gaze triumphantly upon his rival’s consuming remains? Like those around him, Senator Postumus moved mechanically through the hand gestures and obeisance directed by the priest, but Calpurnia was not deceived. That outwardly sympathetic visage veiled a look of smug satisfaction. She knew that Postumus, as with many more of the exiled senators, inwardly rejoiced at the fall of Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, Admiral of the fleet and once consul of Rome. They had never appreciated him, and would have petitioned for his removal long ago had he not garnered favor with Pompey, the great general whom many felt was the last hope for the republic.

Calpurnia then noticed that another man stood with Postumus. This man was a senator, too, judging by his stately appearance, but where Postumus was broad-shouldered and tall, this man was of medium build and looked the more statesmanlike of the two. He had intelligent green eyes that were not as decipherable as Postumus’s. They were not victorious, nor sorrowful, as they stared into the flames from beneath a hooded cloak. They were simply calculating and contemplative, as if he gazed through some unseen portal that revealed the truths of the universe to him and him alone. Postumus and the stranger exchanged brief words from time to time during the ceremony, and Calpurnia surmised that their discussion had little to do with honoring the memory of Marcus Bibulus, as if the dead admiral’s funeral were a mere distraction from other, more pressing matters. The thought enraged Calpurnia, and for the rest of the ritual she could think of nothing else.

"My deepest sympathies to you, my dear child," Senator Postumus offered to her procedurally after the ceremony concluded, as the few spectators filed past to pay their respects. "He was a great man, and a true Roman. I know I speak for the entire Senate when I say Rome owes him a debt of gratitude for his sacrifice in the prosecution of her enemies."

"But my father did not die in battle, Senator," she answered before Postumus could move on. "I have been told that he died in his sleep."

The older man seemed surprised by her manner, for on the few occasions in which she had interacted with him in the past, her conversation had been nothing beyond the courtesies and brief solicitudes expected of a noble lady fulfilling the matron role in her father's house.

"Whether in his bed or on the field of battle, his contributions were the same, my dear lady."

“You still insult my father, Senator!” Calpurnia retorted red-faced. “You whispered behind his back when he lived, and now you dare to speak in such a manner before his smoking remains?"

Calpurnia could feel the gentle hand of Marjanita on her arm, advising caution, and she instantly regretted her outburst. But waves of emotion were flooding over her now – both of doubt and of guilt.

Postumus seemed somewhat alarmed, but then seeing that the nearby Greek and Roman onlookers eagerly awaited his reaction, he quickly resumed his self-assured countenance.

"I meant no insult, Lady Calpurnia. I regret that you take it so. Admiral Bibulus did, as we all know, suffer from certain, er…shall we say… eccentricities that neither I nor many of his peers quite understood. But I was not referring to those, my dear. I was referring to your father’s service as Admiral of the fleet. Your father commanded the ships that has kept Caesar's reinforcements off this shore for nearly a month, and has bought precious time for General Pompey to mass his legions. Your father kept the fleet at sea, blockading our enemy through great exertions on his part, suffering raging seas that would have driven most others into port. Undoubtedly, it was the strain of this extraordinary effort that led to his untimely death. He gave all for Rome. That was my meaning, my lady. Nothing more. Your father’s contribution in bed, afloat along this coast, was equal to that of Pompey on the battlefield."

"Of course," Calpurnia replied in a much more conciliatory tone, willing herself to suppress her own emotions. "Forgive me for my naive and hasty words, Senator. I am not myself, this day."

"Say no more, my dear." He reached out and took her hand in his, patting it several times. She fought back the urge to withdraw it. "You have my forgiveness, and my gratitude for your own contributions. One could never visit the house of Marcus Bibulus without taking notice of his devoted daughter, nor of her striking beauty."

Calpurnia’s stomach churned at the remark, but she smiled politely as she had been accustomed to doing on such occasions.

She saw Postumus cut his eyes at the surrounding crowd, and then he oddly raised his voice as if to ensure that those nearby might hear his next words. "Have no fear, my dear Lady Calpurnia. Your sacrifices, and those of your father, shall not be in vain. Soon, Caesar and those few troops he's managed to get across will be crushed once and for all. Then the Senate will resume its rightful place again, at the head of our empire. Of course, our friends will be rewarded. Our enemies, however,…those who conspire with the dictator…those who are in league with him…well, let's just say, they will find themselves cursing the day they came into this life."

He smiled as he spoke, and looked directly at her, but Calpurnia knew the guileful politician’s words were more for the benefit of the nearby Greek magistrates than for her. Such talk would certainly resound with them, since many Greek towns and villages were even now teetering between the vying factions of Rome. They were faced with a vexing decision. Should they ally themselves with the self-exiled Senate and the Optimates? Or should they ally with Caesar who claimed to represent the only legally elected government of Rome?

Calpurnia watched as the senator left the square with his entourage. The other senator was no longer with him, and she briefly wondered where he might have disappeared to. But Postumus quickly returned to the center of her thoughts. A notion had crossed her mind, one that made her catch her breath.

What are you up to, Senator? She thought as she watched his party retreat through the rain. Why are you here? Why, among all of the exiled Senators in Thessalonica, were you sent here to Corcyra to attend my father's funeral? Are you the one I have been seeking for so long?

"Follow him, Marjanita,” she said quietly. “I wish to know the comings and goings of Senator Postumus. I wish to know every last detail. Where he eats, where he sleeps, where he bathes, even how many times he relieves himself each day. I wish to know with whom he speaks."

"Yes, mistress," the handmaid said, her voice heavily accented with tones of the east. "It would be no trouble to cut his throat in the night, my lady. Did you see how his eyes examined me? He would take me to his bed without hesitation."

Calpurnia thought for a moment before answering. "No, Marjanita. We must know for certain before we act. We must know if he truly is the one. Now, go."

“Yes, my lady.”

As the handmaid walked off briskly with arms tucked inside her cloak, Calpurnia’s eyes rested again on the smoldering pile of ashes. Her father had been very troubled in life. She hoped now, as his spirit entered the afterlife, that it would find some kind of comfort – some kind of peace.

What had gone wrong? She did not believe the claims made by the captain of the flagship – and now by Postumus, too – that her father’s heart simply gave out, that he had worked himself to death. She feared there was more to it than that, perhaps even foul play. But she feared even more what she might discover should she go searching for answers. Was her father’s death a consequence of her own actions, as she now suspected?

“Forgive me, father,” she whispered before tossing a handful of sprigs on the blackened remains. “I vow to your eternal soul that I will find your murderers, and avenge you. I swear it upon my life.”

She would find out the truth – even if she had to wrench it from Neptune himself.

II

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Three weeks earlier… 

The maelstrom had passed. The dark clouds parted to reveal a dissipating mass of wind-swept waves and churning troughs. Though subsiding, the great sea still boiled in anger, as it had after the great tumult that swallowed Atlantis, when it cast the flecks of humanity upon a thousand shores seeding fresh empires to vie for its very control.

The probing rays of the morning sun revealed three craft rolling amidst a mass of flotsam and corpses, the remains of more than a dozen ships that had not withstood the storm. The three surviving vessels had fared little better than their unfortunate sisters. Their decks were strewn with wrecked masts and twisted canvas. Their oars were snapped into pieces or missing entirely. One ship heeled to windward, a jagged hole just above her waterline. A mass of men crowded against one rail in an effort to keep her from capsizing. Another ship bore a splintered stump where once had jutted a high prow.

Like the three vessels, the crews had been worn ragged by the night’s thrashing. Exhausted and moving like the walking dead, they fought to keep their ships afloat – carpenters cutting fresh plugs, sailors hacking at dragging cordage, others toiling on the pumps in the deep shadows of the hull – all working against the dreadful sea that might still claim them at any moment.

But there were other fears, besides the sea, hanging over the heads of these ill-fated mariners.

The clouds lifted to reveal a gray band on the eastern horizon, which soon took the shape of a jagged coastline. After such a disastrous night at sea, one might expect these sailors to welcome the sight of land, to run up the tattered sails, to man the salvageable oars, and make for the safety of the coast. Indeed, the wind now favored such a course, wafting gently at an angle to the shore, ideal for landing the damaged vessels on the sandy beach. But the three storm-ravaged vessels made no such move. In spite of their wretched condition, they did not hoist a single foot of canvas, nor did they point their bows toward the coast. Instead, they ran out their remaining oars and quickly began pulling in the opposite direction, back out to sea. The drums began a steady beat, bringing unity to the dip and sway of the long sweeps. Whenever any oar fell out of line, a crack of the whip instantly brought it back into conformity. There was a haste in their pace, and though the blades smacked against floating debris as often as water, some snapping in the process, they did not stop. As the lingering squalls cleared away, the reason for their haste came into view.

A fleet of two dozen warships emerged from behind a point of land, banners streaming, pitch pots smoldering, oars stroking at full speed. It was a squadron of quinqueremes and triremes and they steered straight for the beleaguered craft.

Panic gripped the decks of the three battered ships as the experienced hands saw that escape was not possible. The oncoming fleet was well-drilled and surged through the water at twice their speed, but the three ships kept flying, with prayers to Neptune whispered on many murmuring lips throughout their leaking hulls.

The hunters came on, their oars in perfect synchronization, their bronze rams gliding like blunt-nosed porpoises beneath the water's surface. They drew a sharp contrast to their prey, whose frantic oarsmen were beginning to lose the cadence in their desperation. One of the fleeing vessels, listing badly, peeled away from the other two, her captain deciding that the disunity of his oars presented as great a danger to his teetering ship as the pursuing fleet. He ordered an about turn in an attempt to face his pursuers. It was a bold and brave maneuver, but not suited to the qualities of his vessel. The ship turned sluggishly, nearly capsizing at the first dig of the steer oar, and succeeded only in placing its beam directly in the path of the attacking fleet. The warships changed course ever so slightly, an organized movement that looked more like pageantry than battle. Then, two ships separated from the rest, aimed their bows directly at the exposed ship, and then accelerated in the final moments before impact. The rams struck simultaneously on the same side, driving deep into the weakened hull and exacting carnage below decks. Screams exuded from the ship’s bowels, and her seams burst with a crimson-laced foam. Her mast snapped and crashed over the side, flinging men into the air.

As the doomed vessel rapidly filled with water, the two warships backed off, extracting their deadly rams. Spray shot high into the air as each hold and cavity collapsed. The dying vessel quickly rolled over, its slimy keel upturned, the two fatal wounds distinctly visible as sharp-toothed gaps in the otherwise smooth hull. Within moments it had sunk beneath the waves, leaving nothing on the frothy surface but a mass of shattered planks and bobbing heads.

The flagship of the pursuing squadron was a swift quinquereme of three banks of oars, called the Remus . She cruised near the center of the formation, where her signals might be seen by her companions, and where she might see theirs.

Aurora  and Pluto  are signaling, commodore,” the first mate reported, as he leaned out over the Remus’s  salt-encrusted foredeck rail and strained his eyes to make out the colored flags waving from the two warships that had just completed the kill. “They wish to know if they should pick up survivors.”

“Tell them, no.” The reply came from a bearded, helmetless Roman officer also standing by the rail. He was wrapped in a blue cloak stained with the salt spray of countless sea voyages. The wind periodically separated the weathered draping, affording a glimpse of the bronze corselet and leather sword belt adorning the sturdy, lean frame beneath. “There is enough driftwood around to keep the stouter ones alive. The tide is in their favor. There is a chance they might gain the shore. We must be after the other transports. Not one must be allowed to escape. Signal the squadron to continue the chase.”

“Yes, commodore,” the mate answered, and then relayed the orders to the waiting signalmen.

Scribonius Libo was forty-two years old. He was the commodore – or navarchus – of Aquila Squadron, the twenty-two warships whose bows now crashed through the rollers in pursuit of the fleeing pair of transports. He watched with approval as his warships surged forward, quickly regaining momentum, their synchronized banks of oars digging into the sea, each crew striving to be the fastest before the watchful eyes of their commander. It never ceased to amaze Libo, the level of devotion his captains exhibited towards him, and he was often humbled by it. Just over a year ago, when his captains had met him for the first time, they had greeted him icily, each concluding that his family name had secured for him the position coveted by them all. But they had soon changed their opinions, once they learned that their new commander was no novice, and that there was much more to him than a family pedigree. His mastery of seamanship, his proficiency at naval tactics, his composure as a leader – not to mention a string of victories – had quickly won them over. More important than his naval prowess, Libo was considered by most to be an honest man, and such a man was attractive to all political factions when selecting military commanders.

The seven hundred sailors, two thousand marines, and six thousand oarsmen that manned Aquila Squadron were the best in the Roman fleet. It was not a boast, it was simply the truth. For what other squadron had, in a matter of months, managed to hunt down and destroy every last ship in the East that had gone over to the side of Gaius Julius Caesar? What other Optimates force had fought and won so many battles against the pretender consul? Libo freely admitted that the one-sided nature of his squadron’s victories had a great deal to do with their superior numbers – but they were victories, nonetheless, and victories needed to be celebrated – for they had been too few of late.

Gaius Julius Caesar – that tyrant who called himself a legitimately elected consul, but who in actuality was a self-appointed dictator – had decided the great empire of Rome, which had taken so many wars and so many generations to mold, did not belong to the Senate and the people, but to himself. In a matter of months, Caesar had taken all of Italy, and then Spain. The Greek provinces were the next morsels marked for consumption to placate his ravenous appetite for power.

He had to be stopped. He would be stopped. And now, perhaps, the opportunity had come at last.

Caesar, in his brashness, had done the unthinkable. Lacking an adequate number of transports, he had divided his army and had crossed over from Italy to Greece with only half of his force – seven understrength legions. It was an arrogant, reckless, and foolish maneuver, and one on which Pompey and the exiled Senate hoped to capitalize. Caesar could not risk facing Pompey’s army with a mere seven legions, and so he must wait for his troops still in Italy to arrive before being drawn into battle. If Pompey could strike Caesar before those reinforcements arrived, the war would be won. Thus, Admiral Bibulus, the supreme commander of the Optimates fleet, had ordered his squadrons to seal off the coast of Greece. They were to prevent any transports from getting through, and buy Pompey the precious time he needed.

Now, the fleet had been at sea for nigh on six weeks, braving one winter storm after another, losing more men to disease and the elements than to the enemy. The ships were in dire need of an overhaul, their leaking seams admitting nearly as much water as their pumps could return to the sea. But Caesar’s first landing had taken Admiral Bibulus off his guard, and Bibulus was bound and determined not to suffer another such embarrassment. He drove his ships incessantly, from the Ionian to the Adriatic and back again, dealing severely with any captain that did not keep perfect station, and delving out punishment for the slightest protests from the crews.

Libo tried not to think of that as he watched the pursuit. The two remaining transports were making good progress, considering the damage they had suffered. One was large, and of Rhodian make. The other was smaller, probably of Athenian origin. The Caesarians had taken to hiring just about anything they could in recent days, and the quality of some of their ships often left something to be desired. There was nothing particular about the smaller vessel to catch Libo’s eye, but there was something about the larger vessel – something that seemed quite out of place. A long, orange banner streamed in wavy curves from the top of the one surviving mast. The rest of the ship was in tatters, but this pennant stood out bright and clear, seemingly without a single tear or blemish, as if it had been taken out and run up for just this occasion.

What could it signify? Was there someone important aboard, perhaps?

“What do you make of that flag?” Libo finally asked the mate.

The sea officer shrugged. “I do not know, sir. I have never seen it before. It’s a signal of some kind, for certain, but it must be particular to the Caesarian filth.”

Libo considered that that was probably true. Caesar had taken it upon himself to rewrite the laws of the land. Why not the laws of the sea as well? The traditions that had worked so well for so many generations of Romans had not been good enough for Caesar – neither had two consulships, nor an unprecedented tenure as the governor of three provinces. And what had Caesar done as governor of Gaul? Waged wars in the name of Rome. Slaughtered and enslaved peoples that had never raised a finger against her. Garnered more and more support from powerful barbarian tribes by helping to annihilate their longstanding foes. It had made for stirring accounts to be read out in the forum, but all that Caesar had done was so far from the will of the Senate.

Now, as Libo’s ships pursued the transports whose decks teemed with legionaries loyal to the dictator, he wondered how so many fools could be convinced to follow the delusions of such a man. Of course, he knew the answer. Rumor had it that Caesar had sacked Rome’s treasury reserves to fund his war of take-over. All of these so-called Romans that now marched in Caesar’s army were in actuality nothing more than mercenaries. Men, who were devoted to one loyalty, that of money, and who cared little who ruled Rome, as long as the exorbitant pay kept coming their way.

The thought made Libo fume inside, and any embers of sympathy still burning within him were quickly snuffed out.

“I grow weary of this chase,” he said at once. “Signal them to heave to, or they will be shown no mercy.”

The signals were sent up the masts, but no answer was returned. The oars of the two craft continued to dip and sway to the beat of the drums.

Libo sighed, and then commanded, “Make battle speed!”

The ship’s master relayed the order to the overseers, and instantly the Remus  began sprinting through the water. Like a school of porpoises, her consorts mimicked her movements, keeping perfect station in two lines abreast.

“Ready catapults!” the mate ordered.

A pair of sailors lugged a pot of smoking pitch between them and cautiously doused the ready missile with the burning paste. As the deadly projectile smoked and threatened to set the entire engine aflame, the catapult crew made final adjustments and then waited for the command.

“Let fly!”

The straining hemp was released, and the flaming missile took to the sky. It sailed with a low trajectory toward the nearest transport, a trail of smoke marking its path. It seemed to hang in the air for a long moment before finally splashing into the sea just off the vessel’s bow. The close call stirred a new vibrancy among the transport’s rowers, the prospect of a fiery death driving them to pull with a vigor that was more in time with the panicked beating of their hearts than with the beat of the drum. This had the exact opposite effect from that which was intended, and the oars quickly fell out of rhythm. From the deck of the Remus , Libo could clearly see the pilot on the transport’s stern, shouting with mad gesticulations for his steer oarsmen to drive her straight, but there was little they could do. The transport began to answer to its stroke oars rather than its steer oars, wallowing this way and that, as a honey bee vainly struggles on the water’s surface by frantically moving its useless legs. Two more burning projectiles sizzled overhead, raising the panic on board her to a new height.

Libo could make out several soldiers on her deck. They were Roman legionaries, all Caesarian troops, bedecked in full battle regalia, evidently making ready for a boarding action. How many of them knew the futility of their preparations? How many knew that their ship would never come within a sword’s stroke of the Remus , nor any other ship in Aquila Squadron?

“Let fly!” the mate shouted again.

This time, the flaming missile did not miss. It soared over the narrowing space of water, the wind nearly extinguishing its flames. But when it crashed through the ports serving the larboard side bank of oars, leaving a jagged hole to mark its passage, the flames suddenly rekindled. Burning pitch splashed amongst the rower benches, promptly starting fires that could be seen as twinkles of orange flame through the remaining ports. Screams resounded from the belly of the transport, a crescendo of inhuman sounds as men were burned alive, as if the cry came from deep within the mammoth lungs of a giant water beast.

A high, arcing missile from one of the other warships landed amidst a crowd of legionaries in the center of the deck, instantly setting tunics, hair, and helmet plumes alight. Another struck the high prow, and then ricocheted back onto the foredeck, the burning mixture incinerating all who had stood there. Soon, more missiles hit than missed. They struck again and again, until the whole ship was ablaze


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from stem to stern. Such precision was unheard of in most fleets, especially when contending with tossing seas, but Libo’s squadron was different. Libo had taken special care to give his ships an advantage by placing a master of artillery on each of his vessels. They were hand-picked engine craftsmen from the east, Parthians mostly, each skilled in the delicate arts of artillery. They had come at a prodigious price – a price Libo had paid from his own purse – but their proficiency in battle had proven crucial to the squadron’s success on more than one occasion.

The burning transport’s mast now toppled, and her abandoned oars fell blazing into the sea. Blackened and naked figures ran blindly over the side, their tunics and hair burned off. Others still ablaze searched in vain for the quenching sea, but ultimately crumpled to the deck to die. Sickened by the sight, and once again feeling a thread of empathy for his foe, Libo glanced at the mate.

“Let your arrows fly,” Libo ordered. “Put the poor devils out of their misery.”

“Once shot, I cannot recover those arrows, commodore,” the mate protested. “They will be badly needed if we are to remain on station as we have for so long. Those men over there will die, either way.”

“Your point is well taken,” Libo said sullenly. “All the same, let them fly. I will not stand by and watch fellow Romans suffer in such a manner.”

The mate nodded reluctantly, and then motioned to the marine centurion on the Remus’s  forecastle, where a score of archers stood with bows at the ready. Soon the bows were twanging in unison, the volleys of arrows flying in rapid succession, wave after wave, until the burning ship’s deck and structure bristled with feathers and everything was still. By the time the squadron had pulled past the transport, she was an indiscernible burning mass.

The remaining ship, seeing the fate of its consort, surrendered to the inevitable. She hove to at once, shipping her oars and running up the appropriate signals of surrender. Her captain undoubtedly hoped such an action would bring mercy.

“I’d rather not expend any more pitch on this riffraff, commodore,” the mate said, still smarting at the waste of perfectly good arrows. “Shall we ram them? Aurora  and Pluto  have taken a turn. Perhaps we should allow one of the other ships to have a go. It will give our boys practice, and keep their minds off their empty bellies.”

Libo said nothing, but stared out at the surrendered vessel, the orange pennant at the masthead once again catching his eye. It made him exceptionally curious, and he found himself straining his eyes to discern the figures walking about the distant deck – Greek sailors, Roman legionaries, oarsmen and slaves. Many stared back at him, but none appeared out of the ordinary. Several of the legionaries were heaving over the side, their stomachs evidently unaccustomed to the roll of the sea. Last night’s blow had been an exceptionally powerful one and would have incapacitated all but the stoutest of them.

But what in Juno’s name was the significance of that orange pennant?

Libo looked at the position of the sun. The day was running on, and he had a rendezvous to keep.

“Signal the transport to follow,” Libo said. “She is to travel in the center of our formation. Tell them, any deviation off course and they will be sunk.”

The mate was obviously unhappy with his commodore’s decision, but nodded obediently and relayed orders to the signalmen.

Soon, the transport was moving again. She took a long time to come about and move up behind the flagship, but once their prize was on station, signal flags flew, and the combined fleet made a sharp turn to the north, heading up the Greek coast under the clearing skies, leaving smoldering wreckage and floating bodies cresting and sinking amidst the waves.

III

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It was approaching dusk when Libo’s squadron reached the rendezvous. A few miles north of the seaport town of Apollonia on the coast of Illyricum, where the Apsus River empties into the sea, he found one hundred warships of all size anchored by squadron. They were the main body of the Optimates fleet, and the arrival of Aquila Squadron now brought them to full complement.

The winter sun had begun to sink into the shimmering expanse, and with its imminent departure came the inevitable offshore breeze, swinging the ships landward of their moorings. The tall masts and towers, bathed in the bright orange hues of the magnified sun, cast long shadows many times their size upon the rippling water.

Libo had expected to find the fleet here. It was the agreed assembly point, and though there was no sheltered harbor, the place had not been selected at random. The admiral had chosen it carefully, and one needed only to gaze beyond the distant rollers at the green slopes climbing up from the white strand to discern the reason. The freshly erected works and innumerable tents of an army were there, stretched between the crests of the two highest hills. Though Libo clearly recognized the distant legionary banners whipping in the wind, the encamped troops were not his allies. For this was not an Optimates army.

This army belonged to Caesar.

“The flagship has signaled, sir,” the mate reported to Libo after taking the message from the signalmen. “We are to bring our prize to the leeward side of the fleet to join the others.”

“Others?”

The mate pointed out a cluster of ships that were just coming into view beyond the bulks of the larger quinqueremes. They were transports, presumably Caesarian ships like the one in the Remus’s  wake.

“Looks like the other squadrons were also busy this morning,” the mate commented with raised brows.

Libo nodded in agreement. The entire fleet had been hard at work, snatching up what appeared to be more than two dozen transports, most in a wretched state. If each was filled with legionaries, as Libo surmised, then several cohorts of legionaries had been stopped from reinforcing the dictator’s army. He watched now as the transport with the orange pennant obediently steered through a small gap in the capital ships to join her comrades in the center of the clustered squadrons.

“More signals from the flagship, sir,” the mate called. “You are ordered to report aboard, forthwith.”

An instant dread overshadowed Libo at the thought of meeting with the admiral, but he knew it was unavoidable. He quickly ducked into the aft cabin to don his ornamental helmet and sword, and gather up his log records. By the time he re-emerged on deck, the ship’s launch had been hoisted over the side and awaited him below the gangway.

“Commodore?” The mate stopped him before he could descend the ladder. “If there’s any hope of provisioning, sir, I’d be most grateful if you’d bring it up with Admiral Bibulus.” The mate looked skeptically at the crew, some of whom were waving to their comrades on the other ships. “They look and act the part, sir, when you or I are on deck, but I’ve heard rumblings. They need water, and fresh meat and bread to fill their empty bellies – and good wine to keep them warm on cold nights. Some of them haven’t the strength to climb the ladder, much less fight a battle. I hate to think of what might happen were we to fight a boarding action. The oarsmen are even worse off. Neptune knows how the overseers keep them rowing.”

“I am aware of all these things, my friend,” Libo patted his shoulder. “Rest assured, that will be my first item of business, if I ever – “

Libo stopped in mid-sentence. He was about to say, “if the mad admiral lets him get a word in,” but that would have been entirely inappropriate with the listening ears of a dozen crewmen close by. Admiral Bibulus’s tendencies were becoming infamous, and much harder to keep concealed from the men. A single glance from the mate told Libo he had understood.

“Anchor the squadron,” Libo said. “Once moorings are secured, have the crews stand down. Let them rest. I get the feeling we will not tarry here long.”

Libo studied the distant shore as he rode in the stern of his launch through the anchored fleet. The Caesarian camp on the hillside was alive with activity. Even from this distance, he could clearly see a mass of helmets poking over the palisade, gazing out at the gathered ships.

Were they mere curious onlookers, or had something grabbed their attention?

The Caesarian soldiers watched in silence, without the usual obscene gestures or shouted insults that accompanied close brushes between two opposing forces. They were far off, but Libo could swear that he felt an air of gloom hanging over them, as if the entire enemy camp was in expectation of something dreadful that was about to happen.

The launch rounded the high stern of a quinquereme, allowing the flagship to come into full view. Libo gazed upon her in awe, as he always did whenever he saw her. The Argonaut  was a deceres, a capital warship, a master of the sea. With several decks of rowers and multiple engines mounted on her main deck, she was far superior to the Remus , or any other ship in the Optimates fleet. Four hundred slaves and freedmen manned her oars, two hundred marines defended her and worked her assorted engines, one hundred sailors worked her decks and rigging, while specialists and staff officers of every kind attended to her administration and that of the fleet. She towered over the lesser warships, like a lioness with her cubs, and though she was not nearly as maneuverable as the Remus , she flew like the wind once the momentum was on her. Her giant ram, three times larger than that of the Remus , did not simply penetrate hulls – it shattered them, grinding them to bits under the inexorable weight of the magnificent beast.

The admiral’s pennant fluttered at the masthead, and just the sight of it made Libo cringe. Admiral Bibulus was known for his oddities. He was an unusual sort of man, and Libo could not remember a face-to-face meeting with the admiral in which he had not been squirming within his armor to get away.

Faces peered over the Argonaut's  high railing and watched as the launch touched near the great ship's ladder. Libo climbed up swiftly, and was received at the gangway by an anxious looking officer who smiled to greet him and then immediately motioned for him to keep silent as a ceremony of sorts transpired on the flagship's deck.

A cluster of officers stood by the far rail, their full attention directed at the stern deck. Bronze-helmeted marines and bearded sailors gawked, too, their stares more of a bewildered nature than a fascinated one. Libo knew that look well, and was not surprised to discover one of the admiral’s rituals, in full progress.

In the middle of the stern deck sat an iron cage, half the height of a man. Beside it, atop a neatly laid out white cloth, sat a small mound of olives. The olives looked fresh, as if they had just been placed there. A dark figure slunk in the far corner of the cage, appearing, to any casual observer, as nothing more than a ball of frayed hair. But upon closer inspection, one could see glimpses of tanned skin showing through the few bare patches, revealing that the creature was something more than an animal. This thing was what had the attention of every man on deck, and what had the ship gripped in complete silence, save for the lapping of the sea against the hull and the periodic whip of the pennant on the high masthead.

Libo sighed, knowing full well what was happening. He silently made his way over to a balding, middle-aged man who wore only a white tunic and who crouched somewhat near the cage with eyes fixated on the beast inside.

“Reporting as ordered, Admiral,” Libo said in a whisper.

The man ignored Libo, his attention seemingly consumed by the creature.

“We captured a single ship, Admiral, and destroyed two more. We sighted no more of the enemy. I believe – “

“Shh!” came the sharp reply from Admiral Bibulus, who appeared irritated at the interruption and did not even turn to acknowledge Libo. “Be so kind as to not interfere with the augury, Libo,” he said in a harsh whisper. “Complete silence on deck. That is the given order!”

Libo bowed in apology, and stood to the side, complying with the admiral’s wishes. Bibulus was an eccentric man, and very hard to judge. His face was gaunt and expressionless, except for the eyes that always seemed strained with worry. Libo never knew where he stood with him. Within moments of the reprimand, Bibulus seemed to have completely forgotten about Libo, because he suddenly opened his mouth in expectation.

The creature was stirring in its cage. The dark, hairy shape had begun to move.

Though Libo had seen the creature many times – he called it a creature, for he knew no other word for it – each time shocked his senses as intensely as the first. It defied the eye and had no registry in the brain. Even now, though repulsed by the creature’s sickening movements, he could not look away. None of them could. There was something captivating about its unnatural state.

From the mass of matted hair, a long muscled arm emerged and stretched out to plant an immense, gnarled hand on the floor of the cage. A shorter arm, equally robust, followed suit, but the hand at the extremity of this arm was little more than a stump, showing dirty, blackened stubs where there should have been fingers. Then, with an insect-like movement, the bulging arms dragged the dark body behind it until the creature had gained the edge of the cage opposite the small mound of olives. Even now, with the creature clearly visible in the light, Libo’s eyes could scarcely process its strange shape, nor how anything that was a man – or had once been a man – could exist in such a form. It was naked, but for the mats of tangled hair that hid most of its leathered skin from view. It had stumps for legs that extended no more than a hand’s breadth below its hips. A huge bulge on its back kept its head pushed forward such that it had to periodically rare up its entire body in order to see where it was going, and it was during these moments that one might glimpse the jagged yellow teeth that seemed crammed into its perpetually open mouth. The arm with the giant hand was half again as long as that of any man Libo had ever encountered. Where the other limbs were severely degraded, this appendage seemed to have been endowed with brute strength. It effortlessly propelled the creature along with surprising agility, much like an ape, leading one to believe that the creature could move much faster if it ever needed or desired to.

“He awakes, Libo,” Bibulus said, while observing every movement of the creature. Libo felt slightly uncomfortable that the admiral was speaking to him. “We must have a verdict, Libo. It won’t be long now. Odulph will tell us. Just wait, young man. Yes, Odulph will tell us.”

Bibulus was coaxing Odulph – for that was the name Bibulus had given to the creature – as one might induce a dog to do tricks. A single long, hairy arm emerged from the iron bars. The glistening globules were just within the creature’s reach, but whenever his arm was fully extended, the massive hump on his back prevented him from seeing where his hand was groping. While all on deck held their breaths in anticipation, the twisted hand grasped at the open air, then slapped down upon the bare deck in an effort to feel its way to the pile. It came close several times, each attempt marked by an audible sigh from the onlookers.

Libo tried to remain composed, for he thought the ritual absurd, but he bit his lip for fear of making a remark that Bibulus might interpret as impertinent. The admiral was convinced that Odulph was an augury. He believed it as sure as he believed the sun would rise on the morrow. Libo had witnessed similar such rituals on many occasions, whenever the hesitant admiral was faced with a decision.

“A little closer,” Bibulus whispered slowly, as if afraid that the sound of his voice might break the creature’s concentration. “Just a little closer.”

As the creature struggled, and the admiral watched with cautious expectation, Libo resisted the urge to ask just what decision hung in the balance while the fleet sat off the coast of Epirus with Caesar’s army looking on, and nearly three dozen captured vessels under the Argonaut’s  lee. There really was no telling. He had known Bibulus to ask the augury for guidance on strategic issues before, but the admiral had also consulted Odulph on which color boots he should wear, or on which side of his body he should wear his sword, or on which side of the ship he should relieve himself.

One could never be too careful, Libo mused, for there was no telling when a sea serpent might leap from the water and devour one while pissing.

Some said the creature had been born that way. But there were also those who claimed that Odulph had once been a man – that he had once been a horse archer in the barbarian hordes that ranged the great plains of the Far East. There were many such stories of the creature’s origins. According to most, Odulph had been captured while on a raid in the Parthian lands. The Parthians, who harbored nothing but hatred for the barbarian hordes, might have flayed him alive on the spot, as they were wont to do with such captives, but, for some reason, Odulph had been spared. But dying would have been a much better fate than what was in store for him. The Parthian satrap singled him out to suffer special torments for the amusement of visiting dignitaries – and the devilish minds of the Far East had extensive imaginations. Over an untold number of years, in deep Parthian dungeons, Odulph underwent daily tortures of every conceivable kind, his tormentors allowing his open wounds and shattered bones to fully heal between each grueling session. In the few times that he was not being dragged to and from the chambers of pain, he was forced to perform the back-breaking labor of a full-bodied slave. The stories said that, over time, his mind began to devolve from that of a man to that of a beast – but he would not die. No living creature should have been able to withstand the gruesome punishments exacted on him, but somehow Odulph endured. Eventually, the satrap realized that his captive was something of a supernatural phenomenon, and began to consider him in some way protected by the gods. Not wishing to provoke the gods by any further torture, he put his small miracle on display in a cage for all the world to see. The creature spent years as a spectacle in the commercial hub of Carrhae, where travelers from all lands marveled and cringed at the mere sight of him. This lasted for many years, until one tragic day, when it was said that a Parthian boy who had gotten too close to the cage was caught up by a lightning fast sweep of the powerful arm. The boy’s throat was crushed in a matter of moments, and his lifeless body tossed away like a toy doll. It was said that upon slaying the lad, Odulph erupted in a hateful vitriol, shaking his giant, gnarled fist at the horrified onlookers and speaking in his native barbarian tongue after not having uttered a single word in years. Thinking it inauspicious to have the creature executed, the Parthian satrap ordered Odulph’s tongue cut out, and then quietly sold him to a Syrian merchant to be done with him.

And that was how Bibulus came to acquire him.

Bibulus spent years in Syria as proconsul of the province and had somehow learned of Odulph’s existence. It was said that Bibulus had been fascinated by the creature who would not die, and had paid an exorbitant price for him. Bibulus was a superstitious man, perhaps brought on by his own political failures. It was well known that his obsession with the auguries manifested itself during his earlier political life, long before the civil war, when he had shared the consulship with Caesar. He had looked to them to justify his own inaction as Caesar forced through legislation with complete disregard for his colleague. It was said that the consulship of that year was filled by two men, Julius and Caesar, because Bibulus had spent nearly the entire period confined to his villa, reading the auguries. Bibulus never truly recovered politically from that disaster, and, like a man addicted to wine, had pursued more and more means to communicate with the deities to discover their true will, and his true purpose in this life. He believed he had finally found it in the wretched Odulph.

Now, as Libo and the others watched, Odulph’s arm groped outside the cage like a probing rake, the long nails grinding along the planks, tickling the ears of every man. Libo saw Bibulus stare with mouth agape, practically willing the creature to find the olives. But, at that moment, a man amongst the file of marines suddenly coughed, loud enough to break the silence. The knotted hand instantly withdrew back inside the cage, accompanied by a loud, guttural grunt that seemed filled with hate and indignation.

Bibulus’s face instantly lost all of its fatigue and turned red with anger. He searched the deck for the source of the interruption, and it took very little effort to find it, as the other marines were subtly inching away from the offending man. The marine turned white with fear as the admiral of the fleet marched swiftly across the deck to face him, but he made no move to run. There was no sense in running, for he knew the fate that awaited him. Every man in the fleet understood the admiral’s mystical fancies were to be taken with the utmost seriousness, just as they all knew the punishment for defiance, either intended or otherwise.

The unarmed admiral said no words to the soldier. He reached for the marine’s gladius, drew it out of its scabbard, and without a pause, drove the blade into its owner’s abdomen. Bibulus was no longer endowed with the strength of his youth, and thus it required several thrusts to push the razor sharp point through the links in the man’s armor. After a small exertion, the sword pierced the marine’s abdomen, starting a rush of blood from beneath the mail shirt that ran down his legs. Seeing this, Bibulus simply released the hilt of the weapon and briskly walked back to the spot where he had been observing the cage, returning all of his attention to Odulph. Whether the admiral heard the cries of agony of the stumbling marine or saw the terrified expressions of the surrounding onlookers, he gave no indication of it. Eventually, the stricken marine dropped to the deck, his face contorted in pain as he vainly clutched the few inches of steel that was not buried in his belly, and then quickly expired in an expanding pool of blood. Without a word, the body was lifted hand and foot by two other marines and callously tossed over the side.

It was at that moment, that Libo caught sight of that single, terrible eye staring back at him from the cage. The creature had only one eye, the other one likely having been gouged out during his time in Parthia. Like those of so many barbarians Libo had encountered from the Far East, the creature’s eye was nearly all black, tainted with yellowish hues where it should be white. The eye was wild and maniacal, filled with pain and hatred. But there were moments – mere glimpses – when Libo swore it carried an intelligence, a wherewithal that spoke of a comprehension well beyond the simple pursuit of the next meal. It struck Libo, perhaps because the look seemed so out of place in such an anomaly of nature. But there was more than just intelligence there. There was satisfaction, and perhaps a hint of mischief, as a spoiled child might look after successfully duping his overly eager father.

“Come, Odulph,” Bibulus now spoke in a paradoxically delicate manner. “Come, now. It is alright. We must not keep the illustrious Caesar waiting. Surely, he watches us at this very moment.”

Libo glanced at the fortified camp upon the shore and concluded that the admiral was probably right. The scarlet tents and standards of Julius Caesar were there. It was very likely that the dictator himself was one of the many men on the battlements, observing the Optimates fleet.

“What shall Caesar see?” continued Bibulus to Odulph. “Come now, you can tell me. What shall we show Caesar? Yes, what shall the posturing bastard see? Will it be fire, or mercy?”

Bibulus waited patiently for an answer, but the creature did not move. Libo understood the admiral’s insistence on such rituals, but, after witnessing the outright murder of the unfortunate marine, he was tiring quickly of this foolishness.

“Perhaps, Admiral, one of the usual auguries might serve just as well in this instance,” Libo offered.

Bibulus turned to face him, looking as though Libo had just told him his ears were green. “Chickens are for the peasantry, Libo! You cannot seriously expect me to use a chicken. Only a true seer can foretell the destinies of great men. Odulph has been blessed by the gods. Jupiter and Mars speak through him, man. I’ve told you this before. The rites must be performed properly.”

“Might I ask what we are deciding on, sir?”

“Wait!” Bibulus snapped, though not at Libo. One of the admiral’s aides was approaching the cage. “Stop! What are you doing, Sextus?”

The officer paused, looking slightly puzzled. “I was only going to add this.” He held out a single olive. “It is only proper, sir, now that the navarch Libo’s prize has been added to the lot.”

Bibulus grinned nervously. “Yes, yes! Quite right! That must be it! Yes, please add it at once! Put it down and move away. Quickly, now!”

The officer did as he was instructed and backed away from the cage. The addition of one more olive seemed to have sparked the interest of the creature. It began to stir once again, the gnarled hand venturing outside the bars ever so slowly.

It did not take Libo long to deduce that the one additional olive represented the Caesarian transport that he had captured, and therefore it followed that the other olives must represent the rest of the prizes sitting off Argonaut’s  beam.

Then, in an animalistic frenzy, the creature suddenly scooped up the olives and crammed them into its mouth. It took only two swipes of the giant hand before every last olive had been consumed, the ravenous ingestion quickly followed by a loud belch.

This seemed to be just what Bibulus had been waiting for. A mad countenance overcame him as he again faced the shore.

"You see, Caesar? You see?” His voice reached a new shrill height. “The gods cast their favor upon me this time!”

Snatching a burning torch from a marine attending the nearest catapult, the crazed admiral dashed the fiery brand into the pitch pot and quickly moved down the deck, igniting the pitch supplies for the other engines until all were sending black smoke into the air. He then looked scathingly at the cluster of captured vessels.

"Wait, Admiral!" Libo said in a rush to stop him before he gave his next command. "Do not do this! These men are Romans. No matter how the tyrant has wronged you in the past, I beg you, do not hold these men responsible for it. You have the honor of the victory. Why taint it with such an act? Would you not shame the brigand Caesar more by showing mercy?"

Bibulus shot him a wild scowl that might have melted stone. "They are Caesarian scum, Libo. They are guilty. No doubt they were among those who waylaid me on the streets of Rome, accosting my person in the most grievous of ways. Imagine it, Libo. I, a consul of Rome, disgraced so, excrement heaped upon me, my lictors assaulted, my dignity besmirched before all." He pointed a shaky finger at the vessels, his voice growing more tremulous the more he spoke. "It was their doing! It was they who kept me sealed up inside my house for the duration of my consulship. Do not mention honor, commodore! They have none!"

Libo thought it highly unlikely that any of the captive troops had belonged to the gangs that had kept Bibulus away from the forum during the tenure of his consulship, for the simple reason that most of them had been mere boys at the time. The year in which Bibulus and Caesar had shared the consulship was more than a decade in the past, but the grudging admiral still harbored ill-will, if not flat out hatred, toward his former colleague. Libo wished to head-off the massacre of so many Romans, but he could see that all of his pleas would fall on deaf ears.

"The augury has spoken, Libo," Bibulus said with a tone of finality. “Now, let them die."

The admiral then raised a single hand in preparation for giving the fatal order, but paused when a sudden spate of guttural noises emanating from the cage drew his attention away. Bibulus slowly crept closer to see what the creature was doing. Odulph had retreated to the far corner, its hair-covered body wracked with spasms as it tried to digest the mass of olives it had just devoured. Some of the most inhuman noises Libo had ever heard now came from that cage. He wanted to look away, in sharp contrast to Bibulus who observed the creature's agony with open-mouthed expectation, as if watching the birthing of a calf.

Finally, with a final heave, the creature ejected the contents of its throat. A single slimy,


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round object shot out of the cage and rolled to a stop at Bibulus's feet. Libo could clearly see that it was an olive, shiny and grotesque in an oozing pool of saliva, but it was completely intact.

Bibulus's eyes instantly filled with wonder at the omen, and he appeared utterly speechless. Libo, however, saw his chance and wasted no time in exploiting it.

"There, Admiral!" Libo exclaimed. "The message could not be any clearer. The gods give life to these men. For what other meaning could be ascribed to such an auspice?"

"Quite right," Bibulus replied, after staring at the disgorged object for a long moment. "You are quite right, commodore." The admiral then turned to face him. "But only one."

"One?"

"One. And that I leave up to you."

Libo was incredulous and inwardly perturbed at the admiral's interpretation. “I do not understand, my lord. One cannot be – "

"Choose quickly, Libo," Bibulus interrupted impatiently. "I will not keep Caesar waiting!"

Libo swallowed once, gazing at the mixed transports with their crews and passengers lining the decks, all looking back at the flagship. How was one to make such a choice? Bibulus was looking more impatient with each passing moment, and so Libo made the only logical choice he could.

"The ship with the orange pennant. Spare that one, if you please, my lord."

Bibulus smiled and then turned to a nearby aide. "Order that ship to pull clear of the rest. The rest are to stay where they are or they will be sunk immediately."

The signal was given, and the large transport complied, its oars slowly thrusting it away from the other captives and closer to the flagship. When it had moved far enough, Bibulus's face seemed to come alive with a vengeful fury.

"Now, Caesar, my old colleague!" He shouted at the figures on the walls of the far-off fort. "A little something for your amusement!”

With a single downward sweep of Bibulus's arm, forty bowstrings twanged, four great engines recoiled on their mounts. The flaming missiles took to the air, converging on the helpless vessels. Following the cue from the flagship, a dozen other quinqueremes released their lethal weapons as well, filling the sky with hundreds of parabolic black streaks that followed the trails of the first missiles. A cry of horror went up from the cluster of transports as hundreds of terrified men saw their doom approaching. Officers could be heard shouting orders in a desperation to get their ships underway again, but only a few of the oars complied before the flaming death crashed into the weather-beaten fleet. Giant boulders lathered in burning pitch broke through warped planking to burrow within the lower decks and holds. Screams of shackled slaves unable to escape the bounding stones of death carried across the water.

Sails caught fire and were instantly consumed. Burning canvas and cordage fell to spread fire to the decks and bulwarks. Frenzied sailors and legionaries ran this way and that, some leaping over the side, some into the flames while others, transfixed by arrows, crumpled to the deck twitching or dead. The flames jumped quickly from one vessel to another, and soon merged into an incongruous mass in which one burning hull was indistinguishable from the next. The screams of the suffering resonated across the water, and touched a chord of dishonor within Libo. For this was no way for Roman soldiers to meet their deaths, and he had to keep reminding himself that there was nothing he could have done to stop it.

Before the last cries were silenced aboard the burning wreckage, Bibulus gave another order.

"Signal that ship to draw closer, Quintus," the admiral said to the Argonaut's  captain while pointing at the unscathed ship with the orange pennant.

As the sole surviving transport complied with the signal and slowly stroked closer to the flagship, Libo silently thanked Jupiter that at least these men would be spared.

When the listing vessel heaved to less than a stone's throw from the flagship, Libo could see that large sections of planking were missing where she had been thrashed by the storm. Dozens of faces peered over the rails, some pale and sickly, some gripped with fear, others glowering. There were legionaries in various states of armor and arms, and sailors in short tunics, some with light mail shirts. A party of several dozen bare-chested slaves of nearly every race passed buckets of seawater up from belowdecks in a long line that ended at the railing, where each bucket was emptied in its turn and then dropped through an open hatch to be filled again. A pulsating flow spewing overboard from two lead pipes intimated that many more men toiled belowdecks on the bilge pumps.

Libo's seasoned eye told him they were fighting a losing battle. He was just about to suggest to Bibulus that a galley be brought up and lines secured to stabilize the teetering craft, when the admiral addressed him.

"There they are, Libo," Bibulus said perfunctorily, gesturing at the mass of men crowded on the vessel's main deck. "Choose."

"I'm sorry, Admiral. I'm not sure I understand -"

"The augury indicated that one should be spared. And since you were so precipitate in interpreting the message from the gods, I think it only right that you should choose the man who is to live." Bibulus was not smiling now, the perturbation evident on his face. "Choose, Libo. Select one man to receive mercy."

Libo could sense that now was not the time to point out that if thirty olives digested meant that thirty ships were condemned, then certainly the one intact olive meant that the gods intended for this entire ship and crew to be spared. Libo detected that he had already gone too far, and Bibulus was letting him know it.

IV

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As Libo scanned the hundred or more bleak faces staring back at him, he could find no measure by which to select the one to be spared. They all looked the same, as men condemned to the cross. The cluster of legionaries on the transport’s foredeck looked haggard and frightened. Surely he could not spare one of these. And how could he choose from the Greek sailors and let the Romans die?

"I must defer to your superior judgement, Admiral," Libo said with the utmost courtesy. "Such a noble act of mercy should come from your hand, not mine."

Bibulus seemed amused by that. "Well said, Libo. It is rather indulgent of me, considering all that I have suffered at the hands of these devils. But, alas, even I am not worthy to make such a decision. Since the gods have called for mercy, the gods shall choose who is to be spared." Then, turning to the rail, Bibulus raised his voice to speak across the strip of water. "Listen to me, all of you!"

Every man on the captured transport turned an attentive and hopeful eye toward the admiral.

"You are Caesarian scum, and I have no use for you!"

"Begging your pardon, my lord!" echoed a voice from the transport. Moments later a tanned, dark-haired man wearing the shortened tunic of a sailor groped his way to the rail. "I beg permission to speak!"

"Who are you?" Bibulus asked impatiently.

"I am the captain of this vessel, my lord. My men and I do not bear any allegiance to Caesar. We are simple Athenians who make our trade shipping goods between Spain and Africa. We had been away from these waters for many months, and were on our way home, when we stopped in Brundisium to water. There, we were immediately seized upon by Caesar's lieutenants and forced to carry these troops across the sea. We had no way of knowing this act was in defiance of the great Pompey and the Senate of Rome. Now that we know these things, we spit on Caesar and all of his followers. I beg you, great Admiral, have mercy on me and my crew."

Bibulus did not appear moved in the least. "Mercy shall be extended, but only to one."

This announcement caused an audible groan from the captives, many of whom now outstretched their hands in supplication.

"Who is to be spared, my lord?" the Greek captain asked, after managing to quiet the small commotion around him. He spoke in Latin, a tongue that the majority of his crew, more than likely, could not understand. "I would humbly offer my services, my lord, should you choose me. I am a skilled navigator and can serve you well in any capacity you desire. The rest of these are mindless deck hands, not worthy of -"

"Hear this, all of you!" Bibulus interrupted. "The old ways will tell us whom the gods have chosen. You will fight to the death."

As the admiral's statement was translated into Greek and other tongues, and as the comprehension moved through the crowd, so did the clamor of protest. At first, both Romans and Greeks alike expressed a collective outrage at the cruel pronouncement, but after the initial shock wore off, they began casting suspicious glances at one another, as if to question the intentions of their own shipmates. Still, none appeared eager to comply with the edict. Libo noticed that the Greek captain was an exception to this. While the others raucously objected, he remained silent, rubbing his chin and sneaking sidelong glances at the hatchways, as if formulating a plan in his head.

Bibulus appeared somewhat amused by the remonstrations, but finally raised one hand to silence them. "I vow that the man who is still standing, after all others have been slain, will not be harmed. That man shall live. Before Juno, you have my word."

This did little to change the fervor of the protests. The Caesarian legionaries shouted vile curses on the admiral, demanding that he slay them all together that they might die honorably as soldiers, not as gladiators for others' amusement.

Libo felt pity for them, but there was nothing he could do. Still puzzled by the orange pennant, he scanned the roiling crowd for any recognizable face, any person of importance, any badge of office, but no man stood out over the others. It then occurred to him that the Greek captain would certainly know its meaning, and he began contemplating how he might convince Bibulus to let the Greek live.

Libo was still contemplating this when he suddenly realized that the Greek captain had disappeared. He was nowhere to be seen on the deck. Could he have gone below?

The answer came a heartbeat later, when a tumult erupted near the aft hatchway. There were legionaries there, but they were not shouting curses at the admiral like the others. Libo saw a flash of steel in the sun, and then saw the legionaries crumple, their faces twisted in pain and horror. They were being assailed from behind. When they finally fell away dead, Libo saw who had slain them. The Greek captain had emerged from the hatchway at the head of a band of screaming sailors. To a man, they were bedecked in bronze helmets, mail, and arms of all kind. In a whirlwind of swinging blades and jabbing points, they set upon every unsuspecting man, killing Roman, Greek, and slave alike. Before the legionaries realized what was happening, more than a dozen of them had fallen victim to the plunging Greek swords. Many, still weakened from sea-sickness, were cut down before they could draw out their own gladii. Bare necks were severed, mail shirts stabbed through, and men hacked to death like animals.

The sailors, accustomed to the sea and little affected by the stomach-churning rolls of the previous evening, advanced from aft to fore in good order – thrusting, slashing, and slaying. The Greek captain stood in their second rank, pushing his men onward, encouraging them to kill without mercy. Evidently, he had convinced the small cadre that their best chance was to stand together. Confusion and madness now spread throughout the entire ship. Those who, moments before, had stood side by side in defiance of the admiral, now stood embraced in deadly struggles. Men without weapons were killed quickly, and then the armed men turned on each other. Single combats abounded. Some twos and threes united in many places, ganging up on individuals and killing them with a ruthlessness stirred from the evil depths of their souls. But as more and more fell to sword and cudgel, the small alliances invariably dissolved. This was not the case with the sailors under the Greek captain who kept his men together, even ordered them to open ranks to invite the stouter men to join them. Those whose skills lay more in seamanship than swordplay were not allowed inside the formation, and were killed outright.

Libo noticed that a similar alliance had assembled on the foredeck, where a few of the more steady Romans had formed into a battle line and faced aft, killing any Greek or slave that approached. Like the Greeks, they allowed only their own countrymen through, and soon the two opposing formations were all that remained on deck, separated by a carpet of twitching bodies. The Greeks far outnumbered the Romans, and presaged their attack with confident jeers and curses. But those few legionaries that remained were the stouter ones, and they answered the Greeks with taunts and challenges of their own, their red-tipped gladii poised to taste more blood. The Greeks would not take them without heavy losses, but the Greek captain goaded his men forward in spite of this, himself standing in the rear as they advanced.

Libo then noticed two men that he had not seen before. They emerged from the forward hatchway behind the Roman line. One was tall and broad-shouldered and wore the cross-plumed helmet of a centurion. This man was hardy, with stern features and eyes that gave the advancing Greek line the minutest of glances, as if the countless battles in his past had imbued him with an instinct to quickly assess and deal with any threat. The crimson gladius in his hand told of many such threats that he had already dispatched belowdecks. The man with the centurion was also Roman. He was a noble, suited in a costly bronze corselet and black cloak. This man was much slighter in stature than the centurion, older, and trimmed with graying hair around his ears. He appeared sickly and feeble – either that, or he was badly wounded. He leaned heavily on the centurion as both moved to join the Roman line.

Whatever ailed him, Libo thought, he was important – of legate rank at least – and very likely knew the reason for the orange pennant. As the opposing lines joined battle, and the first row of Greeks began jabbing boarding pikes at the clustered legionaries, Libo moved closer to Bibulus that he might speak unheard. Bibulus seemed lost in another world, but unlike the others on the flagship, who gleefully watched the melee and hooted and howled at each fatal thrust, the admiral gazed at the shore.

"Admiral, I am certain there is some kind of importance attached to that ship. If not something, then someone." Libo waited for some response to this, but seeing that none was forthcoming, he spoke again. "That man there, under the protection of the big centurion, he looks to be of senior rank. Do you see him?"

Bibulus cast a casual glance at the ship before turning his attention back to the shore, and said simply, "I see no such person."

Libo was frustrated by this answer, but turned to see that the admiral had indeed spoken the truth. The middle-aged noble had quite disappeared amongst the cluster of legionaries that now desperately parried the thrusts of the Greek pikes. Libo did, however, pick out the centurion just as the big man's sword ripped open the throat of a sailor in a move that hardly spanned the blink of an eye. A spray of blood from his victim's open neck speckled the centurion's face and helmet, but it seemed to have little effect except to make him look more hideous and imposing to his attackers.

The Greek captain soon recognized the difficulty this new warrior would present and directed two of his better armed swordsmen to advance on the centurion. Moments later, both men were stumbling to the rear, one clutching a blossom of crimson burgeoning from his groin, the other clawing at the slit in his helmet where a thrust of the centurion’s gladius had entered and turned one eye into jelly.

Libo considered that the noble might be sitting on the deck just behind the centurion, unable to stand from whatever injury he had suffered earlier. Or perhaps he was already dead and lying amongst the growing number of Romans that had fallen to the unceasing thrusts of the deadly pikes. The Roman defense would fail. That much was clear. The Greeks were too numerous. Libo felt that he had to do something. If not now, then never.

"Admiral, I have changed my mind. I have made my choice, and I choose to spare the life of that legate, if he still lives. I beg you to call a stop to this at once before he is harmed by those filthy Greeks."

"It cannot be stopped," the admiral said dismissively. "The augury has chosen. Besides, I prefer the dirty Greek to the treasonous Roman."

Libo could not take any more of the admiral’s delusions, and could no longer contain his irritation. "I'm sorry, my lord, but nothing of the kind has happened! That creature no more speaks for the gods than it does for its own infantile mind! That man over there, about to be hacked to pieces by common sailors, is a senator of Rome. I am sure of it. Even if he is not, it seems plainly obvious that you must -"

"Be wary, my dear Libo," Bibulus regarded him coolly, almost as if he did not recognize him. "You have enjoyed my favor in the past. I have permitted your occasional impertinence because of your skills as a sailor and your astuteness as a commander. But be warned, it is possible to stretch those privileges too far."

Libo fumed silently. A feeling of hopelessness overcame him as more Romans fell. The centurion was trying to rally them, trying to get them to rush the Greeks as one, but there was a lackluster nature to their defense, that of men who had submitted to the certainty of death. Libo turned away, sickened, having seen too many Romans fall this day. But then, a shrill chorus of screams and cries in a dozen different languages filled the air. Libo turned back to see a rush of stark naked men bursting from every hatchway. There had to be one hundred or more. They swarmed over the deck, screaming wildly with a mad bloodlust on their faces. Some also emerged from the portals and climbed up and over the sides, like a creeping vine of red-striped backs and bare buttocks. Black-skinned Nubians, olive-skinned Asians, pale-skinned Gauls and Germans, and many other races made up this enraged mob. Undoubtedly, these were the transport's slaves, somehow released from the chains that had restrained them belowdecks. The Greek master must have acquired every slave he could find from every port on the sea to man his oars. Like all slaves, they came from the ranks of criminals, defeated armies, and conquered peoples. Too many such men aboard any vessel was unwise, lest the captain relish living under the constant threat of mutiny. Being a rower on a ship at sea was one of the most grueling tasks one could undertake, and it was often difficult to press enough freedmen and men of the lower classes to fill the benches. Pressed men were preferred over slaves, because most had a family and a life ashore that they hoped to return to someday, and that simple fact usually kept them loyal to the ship. Slaves, on the other hand, had nothing to look forward to but more pain and hardship. Still, even Roman warships, including Libo’s own, resorted to using slave rowers when it was expedient.

Slave uprisings were the stuff of nightmares, and a nightmarish scene now played out on the deck of the transport as the bare-skinned mob grabbed up fallen weapons to lay into their former masters. Somehow, in spite of this stew of races, cultures, and origins the slaves had managed to organize and had perfectly coordinated their attack. They fell upon Greeks and Romans alike, taking both formations completely by surprise.

Libo saw one giant Nubian slave place the neck of a wounded Greek in the crook of his massive arm and wrench the flailing sailor's neck from its spine. He then cast aside the lifeless, twitching body. He did this to two more Greeks before he was confronted by the Greek captain, who thrust the point of a javelin into the Nubian’s chest until the red tip emerged from his back. The Nubian fell dead, but more slaves took his place in a rush of human flesh that nearly hid the Romans and Greeks from Libo's view. In their rush to get at their foe, many of the bare-footed slaves slipped on the red slickened planks and fell, and struggled back to their feet coated in blood. There were so many slaves, and Libo could scarcely see how the Greeks and Romans could hold them off. The mull of naked men revolved about the glimmer of flashing blades at their center, and these blades were dealing out lethal blows, striking down one slave after another. Spouting arteries shot into the air. Slaves limped to the rear, missing hands or toes. The stroke of one high-swept gladius took the head off of a screaming German. Through all of this carnage, slowly and deliberately, the mass of slaves began to thin.

Then Libo saw them. As the slaves melted away, a small band of blood-covered Greeks and Romans remained. The Greek captain was there, his javelin well-blooded, as were the swords of the two surviving sailors with him. A few paces away, across a deck strewn with mangled bodies, the two only remaining Romans faced them. One was the large centurion. He was helmetless now, and looked exhausted, barely able to hold up the crimson gladii he clutched in each hand. At the centurion's feet, knelt the other Roman holding his hand over a bleeding wound in his own abdomen. This was the noble Libo had seen before, and now the only thing that stood between the noble and the Greeks was the fatigued centurion.

This was the plan of the Greek captain all along, of course. He pushed his two remaining sailors at the centurion, knowing that once his men had spent the last of their strength dealing with the last two Romans, it would be a relatively easy thing for him to slay them, leaving himself as the last man standing and thus the only man that would receive the admiral's clemency. It would have worked, had the centurion truly been as dog-weary as his hunched shoulders and drooping blades seemed to intimate. But it was a ruse, as a crocodile sunbathing on a riverbank might lull a passing wildebeest into thinking he was asleep. The centurion's blades were mere flashes of light in the late day sun, batting aside the thrusts of the Greek swords and severing the hands that held them. Both men died in quick succession after that, a gladius buried to the hilt in each man's neck, useless sword arms pulsating blood with their final heartbeats.

Libo had never seen anything quite like it. The centurion had handled the inferior sailors in a manner that was a marvel to behold. His face bore no malice. His moves were neither flamboyant nor extravagant as Libo had often seen gladiators use to the delight of the mob in the arena. Each move was succinct and efficient, with an odd beauty about it. It was like watching the seemingly effortless tapping of a seasoned sculptor bringing an inanimate stone to life. But this centurion was an artist of death, and he was brutally efficient at it.

As amazing as the centurion’s sword craft was to behold, he had made one error. His attack had left him over-extended and had created an opening that was easily exploited. The Greek captain, shocked at the quick fate of his men, took advantage of the opportunity and stepped behind the centurion. With one kick to the chest, he knocked the wounded noble onto his back. Then, with one fluid motion, the Greek drove his javelin deep into the knight's unprotected abdomen, penetrating just beneath the edge of the armor. Perhaps he had done it out of mirth, after recognizing that he would never defeat the centurion in single combat. He cried out in a victorious roar that also carried in it tones of frustration at knowing his own fate. And that fate was not long in coming. The Greek had not even withdrawn his javelin before the centurion's blade sliced through his neck in a powerful backhanded blow that beheaded him in the blink of an eye. The Greek's death was so abrupt that his headless body stood poised and still clutching the javelin for several long moments. By the time it finally collapsed upon the tilted deck, the severed head had rolled away.

The marines on the Argonaut  erupted in cheers and shouts of admiration at the blooded centurion who now stood alone with blades dripping amongst the corpses of his vanquished foe. He seemed not to hear the accolades, but instead cast a somewhat despondent look at the prostrate noble, who now squirmed and vomited blood as the javelin in his chest slowly drew the life from his body. The centurion knelt beside him, but his every attempt to reach for the javelin and yank it out, and thus quickly end the man's suffering, was feebly batted away by the noble's pale hands. The noble gestured for the centurion to come closer, and the warrior obeyed, turning an ear to hear the man's dying words. Libo saw the blood soaked lips move, but the utterance looked so feeble, he doubted if the centurion could have discerned any of it. Moments later, the punctured and bleeding body went limp and did not move again.

Libo was sure that he had seen a look of bewilderment and then comprehension cross the centurion's face as he had listened to the last statement of the dying man, and it instantly set Libo to wondering. Might the centurion know about the orange pennant?

A gangplank was quickly run out to span the narrow gap between the two ships, but the centurion made no movement toward it. Still holding the red-streaked swords, he scowled at the admiral with defiant eyes, as if he were gauging the likelihood of hitting his mark were he to hurl the blades from where he stood.

"You have triumphed over the others, Centurion,” Bibulous said, seemingly ignorant of the murderous look. “Therefore, you shall live, just as I vowed, just as the gods have ordained."

The centurion did not respond, but continued to stare, and for the first time Libo saw that an old scar ran down one side of the warrior’s chiseled face.

“Drop your swords, Centurion,” the Argonaut ’s captain commanded, stepping up beside the admiral. "Drop them, and step across."

When this drew no response, the annoyed captain summoned a troop of archers to the rail. But even as the creaking bows were drawn back, and the barbed points were aimed at his heart, the blood-stained centurion did not flinch. He seemed intent on following his comrades into death.

"Wait! Stay your arrows!” Libo interjected. The centurion was his only hope of solving the mystery of the orange pennant, not to mention the only survivor in a flotilla of thirty-one ships, and Libo was determined that at least one should be saved. “Admiral, in the name of Neptune, I beg for this man's life. As you said, the gods have chosen one to be spared. There can be no question that this centurion is the one. Surely, he has honored the gods with the valor he has shown today. Surely, he has honored your victory and has pleased all of these men who observed his mastery of the sword. This is a great feat of arms that will be retold by your men among their homes and families, and back in Rome. Would not such an ignoble ending mar this great tale? No matter how errant his loyalties, this brave man cannot be slain in such a way. Let your men proudly tell their eager listeners how the warrior was then spared by the magnanimous Admiral Bibulus. Let the mercy of Bibulus be the glorious ending to this glorious tale. If that is not enough reason to spare him, Admiral, then I appeal to your vast knowledge of the gods and their ways. You and I are men of the seas and the winds. We both know how each day we surrender our lives to their mercy and to the gods who restrain them. Please consider, my lord, that we risk the wrath of those very gods if we dispose of their chosen one in such a disgraceful manner."

Bibulus's face softened slightly, some fragment of Libo's words resonating with his fear of the deities. He looked once across at the warrior and then back to Libo.

"No mindless slave of Caesar's will ever set foot on this ship bearing arms, my dear Libo," he said sardonically. "I leave it to you to convince him. Otherwise, the bow will finish this."

Libo nodded his appreciation, and then moved to the edge of the gangplank, very much aware that the admiral now eyed him shiftily.

"Step forward, Centurion," Libo commanded.

The centurion complied, still holding the swords, not as one about to surrender, but as one might step into the arena to face an inferior opponent. With each step the archers drew their bows tighter, prompting an angry gesture from Libo for them to stand down.

"You fought well, Centurion. But then I see that you are no stranger to battle." Libo pointed to the blood drenched medallions adorning the front of the centurion's mail shirt.

The centurion remained silent, never once taking his eyes from Libo's, but in that intense stare, Libo could see that the bestial bloodlust of combat was beginning to subside, and that the ferocious warrior was slowly being replaced by the cognitive man.

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p>"I am not your enemy, Centurion. Nor are you mine, I suspect. We fight against Caesar and the tyranny he brings, not against Rome's loyal soldiers. You and the soldiers of Rome are our brothers."

The centurion glanced once at the heaps of bodies strewn all around him and shot a surly glance back at Libo, the slightest trace of a smirk on his lips. "Then you have sent many of your kin to the afterlife, this day."

It was the first time Libo had heard the centurion speak, and he was surprised to detect a clear refinement in the soldier’s speech, an articulateness that extended beyond the army camp and spoke of some level of education.

"Our misguided brethren, yes," Libo finally said with solemnity. "But I assure you, we are not your true enemy. What is your name, Centurion?"

"I am called Lucius Domitius of the Tenth Legion."

"You are a valiant warrior, Centurion Domitius, a true master of the fighting arts. Rome is blessed to call you one of her sons."

"I am from Spain."

"Yes, well, you are Roman all the same, and even though you and your friends have allowed yourselves to be lured by Caesar's empty promises of pensions and land, it is still possible to come back to the fold, to rekindle your devotion to the city and people you once swore to protect."

"The last time I was in Rome, many of her Senators and knights were absent. Perhaps their devotion could also be questioned."

Libo detected a jestful nature to the centurion’s tone, and suddenly realized that the man was toying with him, parrying every one of his arguments as he might knock aside the jabs of sword and spear. This man was intelligent, and that was good. An intelligent man could be reasoned with.

"Come now, Centurion. You do not fight for Caesar, nor for Rome, nor riches, nor any of the other fanciful reasons put to verse by those who have never tasted war. We are soldiers, you and I. We fight for our comrades, and no one else. The brave ones lying at your feet died gloriously. If you do not live, who will tell of their bravery? Who will honor their sacrifice, if not you? Will you trust these others not to twist the tale in the retelling? Will you let them claim these Caesarian soldiers died like women, on their knees, begging for mercy? If you, too, are slain, there will be no one to challenge this lie. I leave it to you, Centurion Lucius Domitius of the Tenth. Give the word and I will let the arrows fly. You will have gained nothing. Your name and theirs will be forgotten – or, at worst, tarnished. On the other hand, drop your swords, cross this bridge, and you will preserve their honor as well as your own life. I leave it to you."

"I would rather die here, sword in hand, than as one of your captives. I have witnessed your mercy." He pointed to the mass of burning ships out on the water.

"You will not be killed," Libo said reassuringly.

"Do you swear to that before all these men?" The centurion, who had seemed resistant and hell-bent on dying where he stood only moments ago, now suddenly showed signs of amenability, as if he had been waiting for Libo to say the right words.

Bibulus, who had been petulantly observing the exchange, sighed heavily and spoke before Libo could respond. "In Jupiter's name, you half-wit, we've been all over that. I have sworn that no harm -"

"Not you!" The centurion interrupted so abruptly and with such authority that the stunned admiral seemed lost for words. The imposing warrior then pointed a bloody sword at Libo. "I want your word, not his."

Libo could see that Bibulus was red-faced at the insult and ready to give the archers clairvoyance to shoot, but he had to act before that happened. The incensed admiral looked at him suspiciously, as if testing how he would respond to this undermine of his authority. Then he saw a beguiling expression on the centurion's face, as if the warrior knew exactly the precarious position in which he had just placed him, and was equally curious as to how he would respond. This centurion was either a reckless fool or a calculating charlatan who had perhaps sensed the friction between Libo and Bibulus and had looked to exploit it to his advantage.

"I know I speak for Admiral Marcus Calpurnias Bibulus, as well as myself," Libo said carefully, ever mindful of Bibulus's mistrustful eyes. “Centurion Lucius Domitius of the Tenth Legion, you have our mutual word of honor that your life will be spared. Let the scribe mark it in the log.”

Libo was more immediately concerned with the admiral's reaction to this, but Bibulus seemed pleased and nodded his concurrence. The admiral’s response was scarcely faster than that of the centurion, who immediately pitched the bloody swords over the side and raised his hands in obedience. The warrior’s surrender had happened a bit too abruptly, and it left Libo wondering exactly who was being played for the fool.

"Nothing here, my lord," the Argonaut’s  marine centurion called across the water, after his men had finished searching the sinking ship and driving their swords through every shuddering body. "Soldiers' kits and a hold full of grain, that's about the sum of it. Should we start transferring it all to Argonaut ?"

The Argonaut’s  captain was about to answer, but then thought better of it and glanced at the admiral for guidance. "The grain, my lord. Shall we fetch it aboard?"

"Are you mad?" Bibulus looked at him as though he had just asked permission to put the flagship on the rocks. "And let Caesar see that we are desperate for rations? That we have stooped to the baseness of common pirates? Oh, he would certainly have a laugh at that, captain. Never!"

"Of course, you're right, sir. Sorry, sir."

The marines ushered the now stripped and shackled centurion across to the flagship at the point of the spear, blood and perspiration rolling off his muscled frame onto the freshly scoured deck.

"He looks fit for the end of an oar," the captain quipped in a poor attempt to hide the awe they all felt. The centurion's broad shoulders were even more imposing when towering only a few paces away, and prompted the flagship’s officers to keep wary hands on the hilts of their sheathed swords. "Clean him up and put him below with the slaves. We'll make good employment of him."

"Begging your pardon, Admiral," Libo said, knowing that he had to act now. He was certain the dying knight had imparted something of importance to the centurion, and he was sure that it was connected to the orange pennant. But he could not simply interrogate the man here in front of all of these others, especially the half-mad admiral, who was too lost in the head to know what to do with the information. "I respectfully request that the prisoner be given to me. As you know, the plague that swept through the fleet last month left me well below my complement of rowers. Besides, this man belonged to Caesar's cherished Tenth Legion, and obviously has a rebellious nature. Let me take him, if it pleases you, sir.”

After a wary glance at the centurion, Bibulus's face again transformed to a smile. "No. He shall remain aboard the flagship. We have need of oarsmen, too.”

“As you wish, my lord.” Libo knew he could not protest any further without giving away his true intents. And then he noticed the centurion cast an oddly perceptive glance in his direction before being led away, as if the man had read his thoughts and knew precisely the reason for the request.

“I would have you come to my quarters, Libo,” Bibulus said, smiling in an oddly genial manner, after the centurion had been taken below. “There is a private matter we need to discuss.”

"I will be honored to join you, Admiral."

As the officers retired, the broken transport was cast adrift, her scuppers trickling blood like crimson tears, as if she were cognizant of the fate that awaited her. Once the distance had opened, several balls of burning pitch were launched into her, and the hulk of death was quickly transformed into a raging inferno. Her decks burned from stem to stern, the stench of roasting human flesh carrying thickly across the water. At some point, the flames crawled up the masts, too. The last victim of their withering attack was the lonely orange pennant, which fluttered one last time before the silk caught a spark and was instantly consumed in a brilliant light, its blackened remnants carried off in the next gust.

V

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The stern cabin of the Argonaut  was not spacious by any means, but it far surpassed anything enjoyed by the captains and commodores in the rest of the fleet. Libo sipped at the wine he had been offered, enjoying the warmth of the crackling brazier, and contrasting the accommodating quarters of Admiral Bibulus to his own cramped cabin aboard the Remus . How many nights he had spent at sea, shivering in his damp hammock, as the Remus  cruised in some remote corner of the empire, dreaming of a time when he might rate such a cabin, or such a ship.

The wine was watered down much more than he liked, but he was thankful for any kind of drink after the death and destruction of this day. He had to keep reminding himself that it had all been for the good of the republic. He sat patiently in one corner while Bibulus was attended to by a pair of slaves who were swiftly and proficiently rubbing down his naked body with oil. When they had finished, they produced two bronze strigils and proceeded to vigorously scrape him clean with the small, curved instruments. Finally, the bath was concluded with a conservative washdown from a bucket of rainwater.

As Libo waited for the cleansing ritual to conclude, he could not help but cast eyes at the opposite corner, where the creature’s cage now sat, borne there by four burly slaves after Bibulus had retired to his quarters. The creature skulked against the bars on the opposite side, and gave no sign of consciousness, save for a labored breathing that seemed to fill the room. Libo could not see its face, but he felt an unnerving certainty that the one piercing eye watched him from beneath the mat of tangled hair.

“That is much better!” Bibulus announced with an invigorated tone after the slaves had patted him dry and helped him into a fresh tunic. He dismissed them with a wave of his hand, and then drew a chair near to Libo’s.

“More wine, my friend?” He filled Libo’s cup without waiting for an answer.

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Someday, Libo, when this is all over, we will drink the good stuff, eh? But now we must be content with this.”

Bibulus’s countenance had changed completely, as if the scraping had stripped away the demonic part of him.

“I tell you Libo, I have not felt this rejuvenated in years. I have long waited for this day, when Caesar finally suffered beneath my boot. I have stopped that wicked man – nay, not I, but we – we have stopped him. You and I and the rest of this noble fleet. The tyrant will think twice now before summoning any more reinforcements from Italy, eh?”

“It was a great victory, sir.” Libo replied evenly. Of course, he did not really believe that. It had been a massacre – a one-sided, shameful massacre, but Bibulus was agreeable for the moment, and Libo did not wish to send him spinning off on another of his tirades. Hoping to exploit the admiral’s congenial disposition, Libo ventured to ask, “With the enemy smarting from this blow, my lord, would it not be an excellent opportunity to provision? Corcyra is only a good day's pull to the south.”

Bibulus shot him a wild look, but it only lasted for the briefest moment. “Indeed it would, my friend. But our task is not finished. We have but one more nail to drive home before we have affixed Caesar to his cross.”

“The Rhodian fleet, sir?”

“Precisely.”

“Has the Senate sent word of it?”

“Bah!” Bibulus spat. “I have my own agents, Libo, and I trust them far more than I do our idiotic Senate. The bumptious politicians do nothing but squabble amongst themselves and interfere in military strategies of which they are too incompetent to comprehend. Where have they gotten Pompey in all these months? Where have they gotten us? Indeed, their mismanagement has brought this fleet to the point of mutiny.” He smiled at the expression on Libo’s face. “Yes, I know about the grumblings, Libo. You needn’t look so surprised. You may also be surprised to learn that I understand the grumblings as well. Yes, I understand them, though I would not admit to such in the presence of anyone but you. A few scraps of smoked fish and a few cups of rainwater each day do little to calm a man’s irritable stomach. Such harsh conditions take a toll on the hardiest of men. Their loyalties break down when their bodies face malnutrition.”

It relived Libo somewhat to hear that the admiral was aware of the strain his edicts had placed on the fleet. The daily ration had been halved long ago. When the promised provisioning ships had not arrived, it had been halved again. The other squadron commanders were quick to blame the admiral for the shortage, but Libo knew better, for the Senate controlled the procurement of food and supplies for the fleet. Libo knew that letters of protest had been sent to Thessalonica, and all had been returned with curt replies and tiresome repetitions of how the army needed the food more than the fleet did. That was nothing new. For the fleet always got the last of the pickings. Libo could accept that explanation, if it were the true reason for the shortage.

Pompey’s legions were, at this moment, massed just north of the Apsus River, across from Caesar’s little army. Pompey claimed to be holding the tyrant in check while his own army trained and received more reinforcements, but Libo judged that the great general already had more than enough troops to crush Caesar’s little force. Libo had heard that Pompey was personally overseeing the training of this massive host himself, putting the ranks through drill after drill for weeks on end, until every man moved as one. The exiled Senate was calling it the finest army Rome had ever fielded, but Libo had heard other stories. That Pompey’s drills were more suited for the parade ground than for the battlefield. That warfare had changed in the last twenty years while the revered master strategist had not. Some said the real reason Pompey was personally drilling the troops was that his own legates and tribunes were spending more time looking for whores to populate the next evening’s debauch than they were preparing their own men for battle.

Libo surmised there was much truth to the tales. The officers of the Optimates army were the elite youth of Rome, whose slight regard for their aging commander was only matched by their indifference toward their outnumbered enemy. They put blind faith in their numbers and expressed little or no apprehension that they would soon be facing the hardened, veteran legions of Caesar’s army – an army that had spent the last ten years fighting the savage barbarians of Gaul and Britannia. And the young nobles had brought with them to Greece much more than their disregard for the enemy. They had also brought their silverware, their home furnishings, in some cases their pets, and any number of other unnecessary encumbrances that would do little to help win the coming battle. These high men all expected their camp lives to be like their lives back in Rome. Libo was certain that the provisions intended for the fleet were being headed off by fools such as these, without a single care as to the ramifications.

The hopes of Rome and her dying republic lay on the shoulders of Pompey, the great general of generations past, who had conquered the East when Libo was but a young man. Libo remembered attending one of the spectacular triumphs held in the great general’s honor. Pompey was in the prime of his youth then, bedecked in purple and gold and riding in a four-horse chariot polished to shine like the sun. Libo had looked on with marvel and envy, as the merest glimpse of the general set the hundreds of thousands cheering in a mind-numbing pandemonium that echoed across Rome’s seven hills. Libo remembered feeling as though he had beheld a warrior descended from the gods.

Now, nearly two decades later, Libo was bound to that same warrior he had so revered in his youth. In his own run up the cursus honorum, fortune had placed him in alliance with Pompey on many issues that had deeply divided the Senate. The old general, more than twenty years his senior, had taken a liking to him and had even befriended him, to the extent that Pompey’s youngest son Sextus had taken the hand of Libo’s pubescent daughter Scribonia in marriage. They were two fathers of disproportionate age, sealed together by the knowledge they would one day share the same grandchildren. Pompey had certainly remained loyal to him, even through several failures early on in Libo’s political career, and Libo knew that his present position was largely due to his ties to Pompey. In his heart, he wished nothing more than to return the many kindnesses and favors Pompey had extended him. He had desperately wanted to throw his full support behind the fifty-eight year-old general, but now….he hoped and prayed the Senate had chosen the right man to lead her armies.

Why had Pompey not yet attacked? When would his army be ready? It already vastly outnumbered Caesar’s. It was always a question of timing with Pompey, and the great general always needed more time.

“We cannot put into Corcyra, my friend,” Bibulus went on after taking a long drink. “You are right that we could expect to find at least some supplies there, since it is quite probably the only place not scoured clean by Pompey’s troops, but I would hardly expect to find enough to replenish a single squadron. And how could I send a single squadron to benefit from those stores, and let the others suffer? No, my friend, a sailor’s lot is always a bitter one. An admiral’s task is to choose the path that is least likely to provoke a mass uprising yet still accomplish the mission.”

“I understand, sir,” Libo said supportively.

“But be of good cheer, Libo, for the end is near. Pompey will attack soon, and when he does, we may all go back to our homes in Italy.” Bibulus eyed him, then rose and motioned for him to come over to the chart table. “We shall do our part in dealing with those Rhodian mercenaries who have allied themselves with the dictator. I have it on good account that they are heading for Brundisium as we speak. Thirty ships of war, fully manned and armed for battle. Any day now, they will attempt to cross the Ionian Sea. We must stop them.”

Libo nodded, looking at the spot on the chart where the admiral had placed a finger, the seventy mile stretch of open water that separated the western Greek islands from the Calabria Peninsula in Italy. Should the Rhodians manage to get across, they would be in a position to coordinate with Antony and assist the Caesarian general in getting his troops over to Epirus. Thirty warships could not defeat Bibulus’s combined fleet, but they could certainly create diversions that would open large gaps in the blockade, large enough for Antony to exploit.

“I cannot risk moving the entire fleet that far south. Antony would surely send his transports across the moment he discovered the Adriatic was clear. But, I will risk two squadrons on such an errand.” He turned to face Libo and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “You are my most skilled commander, my young friend, and you have never failed me. You have been loyal throughout, and I trust you implicitly – even as I do my own sons.”

A moment of uneasiness suddenly descended between them, and Libo hoped that his own brief confusion was not betrayed by his expression. For it was well known that the two sons of Bibulus had been murdered more than two years ago, during the admiral’s tenure as proconsul of Syria. Libo saw the admiral’s eyes register embarrassment at the slip of the tongue, and then the pain of that tragedy that must still haunt his soul.

“I am entrusting this task to you, Libo,” Bibulus said formally, after a few quiet moments spent composing himself. “You will leave at once. Take Aquila and Equo squadrons, and destroy the Rhodian fleet. I will leave the specifics to you. Destroy them, and return to the Adriatic as fast as you can.”

VI

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The oarsmen cast uncertain glances at the newcomer in their midst, the tall man with the broad shoulders whom the overseer had chained to oar twenty-eight. If they did not see the rippled forearm extending from the torn tunic, they could not miss the many scars that told of a violent past. He said nothing as the lock was fastened to his ankle, as a wild beast might accept its captivity, but only for a little while.

"Deploy, oars!" Came the command from aft, and four hundred rowers on two decks, thrust out the forty-foot oars, as if the Argonaut  were a giant mosquito preparing to take flight.

"Cruising speed!" Came the next order. A heartbeat later, the drums began their ceaseless cadence, the oars rose from the strain of four hundred glistening backs, and then dipped into the water in perfect unison, immediately putting way on the giant flagship.

The stranger rowed, too, in spite of the discomfort of his new surroundings. The dank air, the stench of hundreds of confined men, and the dim lighting seemed to have no effect on him. In fact, he appeared more in his element with every stroke of the oar, and quickly impressed upon those around him that he was a man more accustomed to discipline, hardship, and order than to freedom. This was most apparent to those sharing his oar when they felt their own loads lighten considerably, the newcomer's strength easily surpassing that of two men.

The mass of arms and backs moved in synchronicity, and though every man felt the tilt of the hull as steer oars dug into the water to steady her on her new course, they had no comprehension of where they were going. They simply stroked and pulled, stroked and pulled, in an endless monotony, an endless rhythm that quickly brought each struggling man to a state of mindless oblivion, the only way to remain sane under the excessive labor. Some snuck a glance at the stranger mid-stroke, expecting him to tire quickly, but he did not. His thousandth stroke had the same vigor as his first. And so there was no reason at all for the overseer, who walked along the platform between the rows of sweating men, to strike the newcomer across the back with his whip. It was a stinging strike, and it came without the slightest warning.

"That's to teach you respect, no?" the overseer, a Greek man, said laughing, as he looked down into the eyes of the tall man who now glared back at him balefully. The whip had cut through his tunic and had left a deep gash running across his broad back from one shoulder to the other.

"I am called Barca," continued the Greek. "But you will never use my name. You will never speak unless told to. You are no longer a soldier. You are like all the others now, a slave, nothing more." The Greek then leaned over so that the tall man could hear him clearly. "They tell me you were a centurion, with many battle honors, that you are accustomed to giving orders, and that you might be hard to break. Hear this now, tall man. You will give no more orders. You, all that you are, all that you will ever be, now belong to this ship and to Barca. You will sit in that spot, on that oar, eighteen hours of every day, and you will spend the other six in the pens." The Greek then smiled. "I leave it to you to decide which is better, no? You can forget about who you were. That man no longer exists. Ah, but you look at me now with those defiant eyes, as if I am the fool and you the master. You do not believe me, no? But it is true, tall man, so very true. Your former life has ended. Your sword and armor have been distributed to others. Your battle decorations have been thrown over the side."

At this, the newcomer turned to face him with a hateful scowl, and looked as if he might spit in his face. Although he did not, the move made his oar miss the stroke. Instantly, Barca drew back and let fly with the whip, bringing it down sharply across the backs of the newcomer and the other men on the oar. He whipped them again and again, until they had resumed the proper rhythm, each man cringing and cursing at the sting of the fresh wounds on his back, but not daring to let the oar falter again. All except for the newcomer, whose eyes did not show pain, only hate, as he stared back at the overseer.

"Do not forget, tall man," the bemused Barca said before moving along. "You serve me, now."

Lucius Domitius, Centurion of the Tenth Legion stared straight ahead as he pushed and pulled on the polished wood that had been held by countless doomed hands before his. A grim countenance overshadowed his tanned and chiseled face. He ignored the reproachful glances from the men beside him, as he ignored the drops of blood that now crept down his back to merge with the sheen of perspiration. The other rowers were mere galley scum, criminals and the condemned, and whether they received a lashing due to his own negligence, he cared little. Though he was surprised to see how sickly they all looked, and it was evident from their rib-lined bellies and their yellow eyes that they were not being fed their proper ration.

"Row, you bilge scum!" the overseer shouted to the mass of straining backs from further down the line. "You think you'll get special treatment, just because you got half-rations this morning? I've got a ration for you!"

The whip cracked several times, and men cried out in pain.

Lucius very much desired to strangle this crowing Barca with his own whip, and vowed that he would do it before long. But, for now, he would comply.

He was weary from the long night spent weathering the storm, the long morning struggling to hold the transport's grumbling crew together through the terrifying voyage to the Epirus coast, and then the tribulation and utter savagery of the melee, from which he alone had emerged. The pain along his back, though biting, served to invigorate him, and he chose to focus his thoughts on the events of the past days rather than the dismal circumstances under which he now toiled.

The night aboard the transport had been a precarious one. It had been a tempest of all tempests, with waves that surpassed the height of the main mast, and blowing spray strong enough to tear a man over the side. Many a time had he watched helplessly as soldiers unaccustomed to sea travel were swept away by one of the moving mountains of green water. Many a time had he watched through salt-sprayed eyes as flashes of lightning revealed a world in turmoil, upturned hulls in their death throes, and the shrieking faces of the doomed bobbing in the boiling sea.

The century aboard Lucius's vessel had not been his own. In fact, the soldiers were not even from the Tenth Legion. They were the green troops of a newly formed Italian legion, made up of raw recruits that had sworn fealty to Caesar as a legitimate consul of Rome. Few, if any, of the green troops had ever experienced the savagery of battle, let alone the punishment that an angry sea can enact on those confined aboard a vessel. Lucius had experienced both on many occasions. A centurion's plume was not won easily. He was a battle-hardened veteran as his medals – the ones that, according to the prattling overseer, now lay on the bottom of the Adriatic – had attested. He had seen his share of battle, and knew the beast-like rage that got a man through such horrors. It was the only reason he was still alive.

The fight on the ship had been especially savage, and it had taken all of the discipline Lucius could muster to keep from snatching up a javelin and hurling it at the turd-sucking Optimates admiral who had ordered the slaughter. But, even in his rage, Lucius had the wherewithal to know that his fatigued arm, which normally threw with deadly accuracy, would have likely missed, and then he would have been feathered with arrows in the next moment.

The somewhat odd circumstances that had placed him aboard the ill-fated transport seemed to get odder with each passing day. He did not fully comprehend the elaborate intrigue of which he now found himself a part, but he knew that his murder had been one of the intended outcomes. It was with that in mind that he had surrendered. For dead men cannot settle scores, and he intended to fully repay the man responsible – the man who had sent him on this fool’s errand.

Lucius had not marched with the Tenth when it shipped out with Caesar all those weeks ago. He had been convalescing in Rome, recovering from wounds he had received in Spain. It was his first time ever setting foot in the renowned city – the seat of the empire for which he had fought for more than a decade – but the Rome he had read and dreamed about since his childhood, had turned out to be something of a disappointment. Around campfires in dist


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ant Gaul and Britannia, he had heard countless tales of Rome’s beauty and greatness, but he could not put those tales to the city through which he had groped for several weeks. The constant stench of sewage hung in the air, mixed with the aroma of rotting carcasses and flotsam backed up in the flooded Tiber. An impenetrable pall of smoke marred the view in every direction, to the extent that even the famed seven hills were mere shadows in the mist. Overcrowded streets, full of braying animals, merchants squabbling over every last sesterces, and a mob that never seemed placated, left Lucius longing for camp life. For all of the order and discipline Lucius had experienced in her legions, Rome itself had seemed a lawless cesspit of humanity, where every man from the lowest slave to the highest magistrate filled each day scheming against his rivals. Every race he had ever encountered was represented there, and they seemed more at home in the great city than he did. It was a confluence of cultures, a concentration of people who cared little what Rome’s armies did so long as the grain flowed and their businesses thrived. It was a noxious blend of the poor and the powerful, of those who had little and those who had much to lose. Masses of human beings lived on top of each other in multi-storied apartment buildings, smelling their neighbors' filth, hearing and often seeing their biological and carnal acts, and all amid the unremitting wail of infants.

Such sights were nothing new to Lucius. He had encountered similar conditions in countless villages and towns, some even worse, but he had never before seen it on such a grand scale. In sharp contrast to the destitute, the elite of Rome dwelt in houses of great opulence hemmed in by walls to shut out the unpleasant sights. Oftentimes, these houses even shared a block with the baser dwellings, and extravagant orgies transpired mere feet away from starvation and poverty.

It was to one of these debauches that Lucius was summoned in the midnight hour, four nights ago – the meeting that had started the chain of events by which he now pulled an oar and wore the chains of a slave.

Rome's current master of horse, the general Marcus Anthony – the de facto ruler of Rome while Caesar was away – had summoned him, and that was all Lucius had known when he had followed the messenger to the lavish villa in the Oppius district. He was led inside to find a debauch of staggering size underway, where Rome’s leading men mingled with the vilest of prostitutes. The naked men strewn throughout the villa were, by and large, Anthony's confidants, all of them drunk and all engaged in some sort of carnal act, some straddled by two or three women at once. Lucius recognized some of them from the campaign in Spain, but there were others, with grayer heads, that would have looked at home in a senator’s toga. The women were all coiffured in the latest fashions, their bodies glistening with scented oils. All seemed to be either laughing or swept up in a sensual trance. The many different perfumes that danced in Lucius’s nostrils did little to hide the presiding aroma, which was that of a well-frequented brothel.

“Lucius!” Anthony called to him from the other side of the room.

Lucius made his way across the expanse of gyrating human flesh, stepping over many intertwined bodies before reaching the couch where Anthony himself was engaged. With nothing else to do but wait, Lucius stood dutifully at attention as the master of horse finished a rather vocal coupling with a large-rumped woman, who made brief eye contact with Lucius before being forced to turn away by Antony's roughness. When the Master of Horse finally finished, he laughed heartily and smacked the whore on the rump to send her on her way.

"How do you fare, Lucius?" Antony said as he used a towel to dry the perspiration from his heaving chest.

"Well, sir."

"Glad I am to have you with me, Lucius,” Antony threw away the towel, and then drank wine from a cup which he first offered to Lucius. “When I heard you were lingering about, recovering from that near brush with death you had in Spain, I instantly called for your selection to my personal guard. I hope you don’t mind.”

“It was an honor, sir,” Lucius replied evenly, though in truth he was still puzzled by the appointment. There had been vacancies in the detachment of legionaries guarding Antony’s home and personal activities. As a centurion without a legion, Lucius had been ripe for the plucking. But he still found it odd that the boisterous Antony, with whom he had quarreled years ago on a nearly forgotten battlefield in far-off Gaul, would have chosen him. He did not like Antony, and from everything he had heard up until a few days ago, the feeling had been mutual. Ever since the appointment, Antony had been oddly congenial towards him, and this atypical conduct had prompted Lucius to be on his guard more than ever.

“It's your first time in Rome, is it not?"

“Yes, General.”

"Well, Lucius, what is your impression?” Antony gestured at the depravity all around them. "Have you ever seen a more hideous dump of human filth? These fat politicians, these wealthy bastards, leeching off of our public purse. It's pathetic."

Lucius thought he might ask the master of horse if he was not the host of this extravagant party, were these people not here at his bidding, and should he not be in Brundisium with the rest of the army preparing to cross over to Greece, but he knew such a challenge would not be wise.

“I prefer the camp, sir," Lucius replied simply.

Antony laughed out loud. "You’re always the trusty centurion, Lucius. I know I can count on you. Have you recovered from your wounds?" Antony slapped a bare hand on the ribs where Lucius had received a deep thrust of a spear. Lucius was not ready for it, but he managed to deal with the pain without flinching.

"Quite recovered, sir."

“Good. Very good.” Antony then drew a serious expression that seemed put on. “You have my sincerest apologies, Lucius, about my behavior last night. I did not mean to bark at you like that. You know well the churlish mood that overcomes me when I’ve been up late drinking.”

Lucius nodded, but did not respond, surprised that the general had even thought to broach the matter. Late on the previous evening, when Lucius had been captain of the watch, a cloaked courier had arrived bearing a secret letter for the general’s eyes alone. Assuming that the letter had come from Caesar, and that Antony would want to know its contents without delay, Lucius had conducted the agent to Antony’s quarters in the dead of the night. The drunken general had received the messenger cordially, but he had also taken a moment to give Lucius a verbal thrashing over the intrusion. Lucius had thought nothing of it, for it was certainly not his first time dealing with a drunk and verbose senior officer, and the outburst had been closer to the behavior Lucius was more accustomed to from Antony. Now, this uncharacteristic apology by the once again affable general made Lucius even more uneasy.

“The truth is, Lucius, I have been overstressed of late,” Antony continued, not a trace of the alleged anxiety in his deportment. “I’ve got four legions sitting on the beach, with fingers up their arses, waiting for a favorable wind to take them across the sea to join Caesar, and I’ve scarcely enough transports to fit them all. Meanwhile, the Optimates fleet cruises up and down the Adriatic stroking its prick for me to make an attempt. I pray to Stimula, Lucius, that the gods intervene on our behalf, but until they do, we must content ourselves with smaller objectives. And this brings me to the reason I called for you.”

Several voluptuous women wearing masks and lingering about Anthony's couch laughed between themselves and whispered as they stared at Lucius's large frame. It was at that moment that Lucius had noticed two other men sitting in the shadows. He recognized the portly eunuch Orestes – a blonde-haired, shifty-eyed fellow that spoke in whispers and who was also Antony’s chief advisor – and another man whom he did not recognize, a thin, intelligent-looking noble with iron-gray hair. Like Lucius, these other two were among the minority of fully clothed men in the room. The bulging eyes and fat lips of the pale-skinned eunuch rolled wistfully at the sights all around him, in contrast to the noble who appeared even more uncomfortable than did Lucius.

Antony made a motion and the noble rose and approached, leaving the eunuch alone to ogle at the surroundings.

"Legate Atilius Marcellus,” Antony introduced them. “Meet Centurion Lucius Domitius."

"A pleasure, Centurion," the thin-faced man replied somewhat restlessly, his eyes only briefly meeting Lucius’s.

"Centurion Domitius will act as your escort on your little errand, Marcellus," Antony said carelessly between drinks. "And you may be glad of that, my friend. There's nary a better warrior in the legions."

"Oh, I will take your word for that, my lord," Marcellus said in lightly veiled disinterest, distracted by the breasts of a woman brushing past him.

"Excuse me, sir," Lucius said with surprise at the assignment which he was now hearing about for the first time. "What is it that I am to do?"

Antony laughed heartily at the bewildered expression on his face. "Don't worry, Lucius. This is a simple matter. You will be bodyguard to Marcellus, here. Never once let him out of your sight. Not even for a piss." He laughed and gave the legate a good-natured shove. "Do as he says, but make sure he does as I have bid him."

Lucius cleared his throat once, doing his best to remain outwardly calm. "Pardon me, General, but it was my intention to rejoin the Tenth at the first opportunity. I am not the right choice for this -"

"There you go, second-guessing me," Antony interrupted chuckling. "And don't knit your Spanish brow at me, my valiant Lucius. You are the perfect fit for this task, and if you had half the patience of a flea on a turd, you will find that I have taken your desires to heart. Don't think the dozen requests you sent through my adjutant never reached me. In giving you this assignment, I am conceding to your request. Marcellus, here, is to deliver a very important message for me in Epirus. You will accompany him to Brundisium, board a vessel waiting there, and sail for the Greek coast. Once you have made land fall, and have conveyed him to his destination, you can go your way and rejoin your legion, and Marcellus can go his."

The sudden prospect of leaving this stink-laden city and returning to the army made Lucius momentarily let his guard down, and the elation must have been apparent.

"Ah, see? I do repay my debts," Antony said smugly at the look on his face, taking the opportunity to slap the bare cheeks of a young, dark-skinned woman shuffling past them as she refilled cups from a wine jug. "Be sure to make your way back here in a few moments, my lovely." Antony said ravenously, studying her breasts as one might select the ripest fruit from a tree. Lucius saw that the woman appeared somewhat frightened at the fate that soon awaited her, but she smiled obediently at the general and moved on.

"I do enjoy an Asiatic from time to time, Lucius," Antony said, watching the woman’s supple form float around the room. "Their eyes have something behind them that cannot be described. It's mysterious, like they either plan to cut your balls off or give you a romping you'll never forget. I could never get my fill of them when I was stationed in the east. One reason I regretted leaving. What say you? Ever had an eastern woman? That tart is woman enough for the both of us."

Lucius gritted his teeth. "Apologies, sir, but I must refuse such a generous offer."

"Bah! That's your problem, Lucius. You're all duty and no merriment. I think you'd hump your shield as soon as take that armor off. Well, stick with me, my austere friend, and we'll soon see about having that stick removed from your arse!"

Antony ambled over to a chamber pot and proceeded to urinate, still chuckling to himself, apparently mistaking Lucius's restraint for prudishness.

Lucius had certainly bedded his share of women in the course of his well-travelled career. His tall frame and rough features had drawn many to him in the lands conquered by Caesar's hosts. But his view toward women differed from that of Antony's. Though he had slain many a man with bare hand and sword, he would never force himself on a woman, as many conquering soldiers thought it their right. Nor was he naive enough to believe that the women who had invited him to their beds were affectionately pulled to him. He knew well that women in conquered lands often gave themselves over willingly to a soldier who would protect them from rape and worse from his comrades. More than once, he had slain a drunken legionary or auxiliary in some darkened alley after witnessing such offenses. His own mother and sister had been raped and murdered, and he bore a special hatred toward those who would perpetrate such a foul act, regardless of whether or not the guilty men were in his legion. In his own mind, those he had killed had been inadequate substitutes for the one man truly responsible for the murder of his family – for that man still lived.

That man, that two-faced butcher – one Marcus Valens, an exiled senator who had tried to do away with Lucius on more than one occasion – lived and breathed the air of this life while the spirits of Lucius’s family cried out to him for revenge. As much as Lucius despised the streets of Rome, he had ventured out shortly after his recovery, and had sought out the house of the Valenii. It had not taken long to find it, and it had been much as he had expected, an abandoned villa on the outskirts of the city that appeared not to have been inhabited for years. From the few locals brave enough to speak to a probing centurion, he had learned that the house still belonged to the Valenii family. Someday, Marcus Valens would return. Someday, so would he – and he would finally avenge his family.

"I don't understand, my lord," Marcellus said suddenly, breaking Lucius away from his thoughts, and Lucius realized that the legate had been studying the medallions adorning the front of his armor. “Why this man?”

Antony furrowed his brow. "What’s there to understand? You have been gnawing at my bloody ear all day to give you a bodyguard. Well, here he is!" Antony was speaking in an oddly artificial manner, but Lucius could not discern the reason, nor if the poor actor of a general realized that Lucius was wise to it.

"Yes, of course," the legate said, eyeing Lucius uncertainly. "But, sir, I have misgivings about…"

"I don’t give a hyena’s testicle about your misgivings, man!” Antony said, suddenly angry. “This is the man I spoke to you about. One like Centurion Domitius will be enough. Besides, too many know about this, already."

“Might I speak with you for a moment in private, General?” Marcellus said rather abruptly, glancing once uncomfortably at Lucius.

Antony sighed, but nodded, and then, as Lucius waited, the two retired to the couch where Orestes sat, and all three men proceeded to exchange words in whispers, obviously not intended for Lucius’s ears. The naked Antony and the clothed legate did most of the talking, some of it appearing heated, while Orestes chimed in from time to time, never taking his eyes off of the moving flesh all around the room. Eventually, the legate appeared to concede on some crucial point, and then he rose and approached Lucius.

“My apologies, Centurion,” Marcellus finally said, his misgivings still visible on his face if not in his voice. “You are quite qualified to perform this task. I meant no insult to you.”

“Anything I need to know about, sir?”

“No.” The legate shook his head. “The general and I had a disagreement over a private matter – a matter quite separate from this one. You had best go prepare your kit. We will leave in the morning. Meet me at sunrise outside the Capena gate. And, please, do not tell anyone where you are going.”

Before he left, Lucius cast one look at Antony, who was still conversing with the distracted eunuch. The general caught his gaze and smiled back at him, but the earlier twinkle of merriment was now gone from Antony’s eyes. The smile was artificial and the eye malevolent, as it had looked years ago when Lucius crossed ways with him in Gaul.

Two days later, Lucius and Marcellus stood on the wharf in Brundisium Harbor waiting to board the galley that would carry them on the day-long journey across the sea to the Epirus shore.

"It should be a simple thing, Centurion." The legate assumed a stalwart tone, but it was a poor attempt to hide the trepidation he still felt. "Just over there, and then a day's ride, perhaps two."

The seemingly nerve-wracked Marcellus was garrulous, as if he still needed further convincing to go through with the mission. It made Lucius curious enough to probe.

"Quite a few ships fitting out for this, sir," Lucius said, gesturing at the activity in the harbor, where four dozen vessels of varying size were being loaded to the gills with troops, pack animals, and equipment – four cohorts from the Thirteenth Legion.

"Oh, they are not part of this," Marcellus was quick to say. "General Antony wishes to reinforce Caesar as soon as practicable. We are merely along for the ride."

More likely, Lucius thought, Antony needed a good story in case this venture went awry. Lucius surmised that Caesar knew nothing about it, and Antony was playing a dangerous game, using the pretense of sending a resupply convoy just to deliver his private message to …who? Jupiter only knew. Was he in communication with the Senate-in-exile? The message had not been written down and had existed only in Marcellus’s head.

Now, only a day later, Marcellus was dead. And now, the message Marcellus had been entrusted with lived only in Lucius’s head. As Lucius pulled and pushed on the oar, his brute strength added to that of four hundred others to thrust the Argonaut  along on the dark sea, he pondered the meaning of the words Marcellus had whispered in his final breaths. In those last moments, the legate had revealed two items, one of which was perfectly logical, and the other perfectly meaningless, but Lucius was certain that neither had been mere gibberish brought on by loss of blood.

“I rejoice… at this change of events, Centurion,” Marcellus had said between lips painted red, as the gore-covered Lucius had knelt beside him on the corpse-laden deck. The legate had struggled to talk with the Greek captain’s javelin buried in his chest. “You are an upright soldier, Centurion, and I did not wish any harm to come to you… Upon my life, I did not… Forgive me, will you?”

Lucius had held the legate’s head in his bloody hands, hoping to glean more before the observers on the Optimates flagship had a chance to interfere. “Say on, sir.”

“Antony is a traitor… I leave it to you to carry my message… to whomever you deem worthy of it.”

“What message, sir?”

“Basada on the Ides, Centurion,” Marcellus strained to whisper.

Lucius leaned in closer, unsure that he had heard the words correctly. “I’m sorry, sir. What did you say?”

“Basada on the Ides,” he whispered again. “Tell him that, Centurion… Tell him.”

“Tell who, sir? To whom do I give this message?”

“The Raven.”

Marcellus smiled at the confused expression on Lucius’s face, and then violently coughed up a mixture of blood and saliva before his eyes rested on Lucius again. “Do not be deceived… Antony bears you ill will… You are a mighty warrior, my young friend. You have fought so valiantly to protect me today… but that is not the reason you were chosen for this task.”

“What was the reason?” Lucius demanded hurriedly, seeing that the legate was slipping away. He wanted to grab Marcellus and shake him, but he was afraid such an act might send the legate to the afterlife sooner. “And what is this Raven you speak of?”

“I bore instructions… to have you slain… once we reached Epirus… forgive me, Centurion… forgive me…”

The legate had said no more. His next breath had been his last, his hollow eyes staring into Lucius’s as one who had just touched another in a game of tag.

Lucius was not shocked to learn that Antony had wanted him dead. The bastard had been acting too amiable, considering their past. Years ago, Lucius had saved a Gallic slave girl from becoming another of the lecherous general’s conquests. The incident had caused Antony some embarrassment under the eyes of Caesar, and though Antony had never exhibited any outward signs of hatred toward Lucius over the slight, rumors had reached Lucius’s ears more than once that the general, in his drunker moments, cursed Lucius’s name. Lucius was only surprised that Antony had chosen to get his retribution now, in such an elaborate manner, and as a sideshow to what appeared to be an intrigue of much larger proportions.

Antony was clearly communicating with someone in Greece, but what exactly did Marcellus mean when he said that Antony was a traitor? Had he been referring to the plot against Lucius, or something much larger? A betrayal of Caesar, perhaps? Who, or what, was this Raven who waited in Epirus for the message Basada on the Ides ? Lucius had never heard of any man that went by such a name.

After the storm, when Marcellus had lain sick in his hammock from the tossing seas, he had summoned Lucius and had given him a brightly-colored orange pennant which he instructed Lucius to have run up the transport’s mast. Lucius had complied, and had given the confused captain the same explanation Marcellus had given him, that the flag would ensure them safe passage should they run into any Optimates ships. Evidently, it had not worked. Whatever agreement Marcellus believed existed had not been communicated to the ships that had captured the transport. That was why Lucius had bristled when the naval officer in the blue cloak, the one who called himself Libo, took such an interest in him. There was something there, and Lucius suspected this Libo knew the significance of the orange flag, and thus something of the message Lucius carried in his mind. Was the message intended for him? Was he the one called the Raven? Perhaps, had this Libo succeeded in taking Lucius aboard his own ship, Lucius might have used the message to bargain for his freedom.

Barca’s whip cracked somewhere down the line again, followed immediately by a shriek of pain, stirring Lucius from his contemplation. His straining back and shoulder muscles returned to the forefront of his thoughts. With each stroke he muttered the name of Antony under his breath, swearing that, should he ever gain his freedom, he would see to it that the mule’s arse got what was coming to him. But for now, he would remain under the vigilant eye of the devilish overseer, one of hundreds doomed to stroke and pull, stroke and pull, stroke and pull the mad admiral’s flagship across the sea.

VII

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With the Argonaut  at its head, the fleet had pulled back out to sea, hoping to catch the next armada of transports attempting to reinforce Caesar. Libo’s two squadrons had pulled away and disappeared over the blue horizon to the south, on their way to the Ionian Sea in search of the Rhodian fleet.

For Admiral Bibulus aboard the Argonaut , the days were long and the sea empty, as if his fleet alone inhabited the world. As expected, his captains and squadron commanders made many requests for victualing and watering. All were curtly refused and the fleet pushed even harder to stay on station.

Men had already begun to die from disease and malnutrition. The slaves, with their cramped quarters and dismal conditions, were always the first to suffer from such shortages. Twelve on the Argonaut  alone had already succumbed and had been cast over the side. Bibulus displayed no feeling for these losses, either emotional or logistical. He himself refused his own daily ration on many occasions, often imbibing only half of his daily water, to prove to the crew that any deprivation they suffered, he suffered, too. But nourishment of a different sort drove Bibulus on, in spite of the pangs in his belly and the cracks in his dry lips. Self-validation, proving to himself that he was Caesar’s superior, was more important to him than life itself, and it gave him an artificial impetus not enjoyed by the others.

Bibulus found himself more detached from his men with each passing day, including his own staff, who had learned to give him free-reign of the stern deck and not to approach unless called for. He had flown into a rage on more than one occasion at the merest suggestion that the fleet be rested, nearly choking to death one lieutenant after the young man had taken an observation on a nearby point of land and had announced that the fleet was off of her expected position by more than ten miles. The admiral wished to hear no other news than that the enemy's vessels had been sighted, and he grew more and more convinced with each passing day that his officers were plotting his downfall.

Did they not understand? Bibulus often wondered as he strolled the deck. Caesar must be defeated at all costs. The gods demanded his blood, for he was a demon, a curse on the Roman world, and he must be killed to preserve it. Could they not see? Nothing else mattered, not their puny lives, not his.

"Sail on the horizon, my lord!" a lookout called from Argonaut’s  forward tower one clear morning as the weary fleet cruised on the southern end of its patrol area, just off the Epirus coast. "It's a small ship, sir, hugging the shore. A merchant sloop by the looks of her, a corbita , under all sails. She's pulling away from the coast now, heading directly for us. I see the standard of the Senate in her tops."

An hour later, Bibulus leaned his haggard form over the railing to look down into the sloop as it pulled alongside. He recognized the tall, round-faced, man with the gray hair who glowered up at him from the stern sheets as one Gaius Fabius Postumus, a senator belonging to a patrician family that could boast names etched into the distinguished list of consuls running back to the times of the great Scipio. The elderly Postumus was not the oldest man in the exiled Senate, but he was senior enough, and had enough auctoritas, to be chosen as their representative whenever they wished to communicate with senior field commanders. A young, dark-haired noble whom Bibulus knew to be Postumus’s adjutant stood beside the senator with documents tucked under his arm.

Bibulus nodded to them with a courteous smile, though he inwardly loathed their presence here. What business did the Senate have meddling in his affairs? He was the admiral of the fleet, just as Pompey was the general of the army, and he resented any such oversight. They came to him as if he were an errant schoolboy that needed to be nudged in the right direction. Damn them!

“Greetings, Marcus,” Postumus said cordially, as he ascended the ladder to the flagship’s main deck, followed by his aide and one other – a bald slave that wore a green tunic and appeared to serve no function other than to protect the senator, judging by the short, curved sword sheathed at his belt.

“Good morning, Senator Postumus,” Bibulus returned, with equal geniality. “What an honor to receive such distinguished guests this far out at sea.”

“Yes, Admiral, far out at sea, indeed. We suffered no small inconvenience finding you. We are fortunate to have caught up with you at all. Your fleet hardly remains in one place long enough for our scouts ashore to report on your whereabouts.”

“By design, my dear Senator,” Bibulus replied suspiciously, detecting the sarcasm in the old senator’s tone. “Such swift movements prove equally confusing to our enemy. I have sworn to keep any reinforcements from reaching that despicable tyrant Caesar, and that is precisely what I intend to do.”

Postumus seemed unimpressed by this. “One might also conclude that you were more concerned with evading your minders than with finding the enemy.”

Bibulus shot a scowl at the old man. He had never liked Postumus. The elderly senator had been one of those so overly critical of him during his shared consulship with Caesar, even going so far as to call him a coward for avoiding the forum. Postumus was like all the others, all born sipping from the golden cup and ever regarding him as their inferior in mind and station. And Bibulus had other reasons, too, for hating Postumus.

“We are diligent, Senator,” he finally managed to say through gritted teeth. “We aim to stop the tyrant’s ships from getting through, not to hang on every beck and call of the Senate-in-exile.” He emphasized the last word as if to remind Postumus that he and the rest of his pompous friends really had no power at all. They constituted a body of outcasts who no longer held any station in life, as long as Caesar retained control of Rome.

“We are glad to hear it,” Postumus replied insincerely. “For we would not want the fleet to repeat its earlier misfortune, when it was caught napping and let


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the tyrant’s ships through unscathed.”

“Perhaps, had the Senate-in-exile taken a few moments away from the comfort of their Greek villas, and had apportioned some of their abundant cuisine to the fleet, instead of to their own servants and the idling army, the fleet might have been at sea instead of in Corcyra napping, as you so erroneously claim!”

“Gentlemen, please!” Postumus’s young adjutant spoke up, stepping between them just as Postumus was about to retort with what certainly would have been a venomous reply.

Bibulus could not place the adjutant’s name, but he could not remember a time when the young man was not by the senator’s side, and had seen him oftentimes interjecting himself into Postumus’s conversations, as if his sole purpose was to stand ready as the voice of reason to offset the senator’s short temper. He had the polished disposition and intelligent features of one who had mingled among the circles of Rome’s political elite for most of his life, and although there were flecks of gray in his black hair, Bibulus guessed he could scarcely be over thirty years of age.

“It serves little purpose to bicker in this fashion, gentlemen,” the young man said agreeably. “And, Senator, please forgive me if I remind you that we have important business with the admiral that requires immediate attention.”

“Yes, yes. Quite right, Flavius,” Postumus said, then glancing at Bibulus, made the introduction. “I believe you know my aide, Gallio Flavius Albinus.”

“Yes, indeed. I am pleased to see you again, Flavius.”

“No less than I am to see you, my lord.” Flavius then gestured down at the sloop where several men waited at the base of the ladder amongst a vast number of sacks and amphorae. “We have brought nourishment with us, Admiral. Smoked meats, bread, nuts and figs, wine and garum. May we bring it aboard, and would you honor the senator as his guest as we feast in your cabin?”

“It appears you have enough to supply several feasts, young man.” Bibulus said, examining the plentiful cargo.

“Please forgive the supposition, my lord, but the senator did not want to impose on you, knowing the state of your own stores.”

Bibulus could nearly feel the gaunt faces of the Argonaut’s  crew glaring at him. Was it his imagination, or had a hush suddenly descended on the deck? Perhaps his men waited to hear if he would accept the invitation while they continued to cope with quarter rations.

“You may indeed bring it aboard, Flavius,” he finally said. “Argonaut ’s captain will see that the hoist is rigged out for you. But do not take it to my quarters. It serves our cause better if it goes to my crew. It shall all be laid out here on deck, and the captain shall then select forty of his best men to fill their bellies. While they are enjoying your most generous gift, we shall retire to my cabin.”

This drew a look of brief puzzlement from the aide and an annoyed sigh from the senator, who had obviously been looking forward to the meal. The crew, however, instantly put more vigor in their work, each man hoping that he might be chosen as one of the forty.

“As you wish, my lord,” Flavius shrugged, and then motioned for the men below to do as the admiral had directed.

Not long after, Postumus and Flavius sat in Bibulus’s quarters, sipping the admiral’s diluted wine and watching with disgust as he fed a handful of nuts to the caged Odulph, who belched after noisily chewing and swallowing each one. A shaft of sunlight cut across the room from the leeward portal, as if to act as a symbolic division between the admiral and his guests.

“I assure you, gentlemen, this fleet is ready to thwart any crossing,” Bibulus said, relishing the knowledge that Postumus sat there hungry while his sailors outside feasted. “To any man who claims otherwise, I point to our recent victory. The Senate did receive word of it by now, I assume? I sent a packet with the glorious news in my last dispatch.”

“Yes, indeed we did,” Postumus replied stiffly.

“Then perhaps you bring with you a commendation from the Senate? Perhaps that is the reason for your presence here? It certainly is warranted, I -”

“How presumptuous you are, Admiral,” Postumus interrupted curtly. “Of course, we have brought no such thing. You have our thanks, and that of the rest of the Senate, for doing your duty as any commander would, but we are here for other reasons, as you must well know.”

Bibulus seethed inwardly, wishing to have the arrogant buffoon thrown to the sharks for minimizing his victory, but he bit his tongue and continued tossing almonds to Odulph. Bibulus made himself take a deep breath before he spoke again. “Was the report not clear, Senator? Did you not read that thirty-one of the tyrant’s vessels now lie on the sea floor, and this without a single loss of our own?”

“The report was clear enough on that account, my lord,” Flavius said guardedly. “Unfortunately, the senator found it – shall we say – lacking in other areas.”

“Such as?”

“You included the tally of ships destroyed, but you failed to provide any details about them. Nowhere did you mention the types of vessels, nor any particularities, such as their names, their markings, and so on. You do understand why such details are important to us, do you not?”

“They were all burned. I am too busy to distract myself with such notions. Let Neptune sort them, eh? I only wish to sink them.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Bibulus caught sight of Postumus gripping the arms of his chair in anger, but the equable Flavius continued the questioning in a polite tone. “The scant details in your report, my lord, left us all wondering if you had encountered a ship flying a peculiar banner – an orange banner, shall we say?”

Such tricksters they were, Bibulous thought, never taking his eyes from Odulph. They were vultures, all of them, just waiting for their chance to have him removed. They wished for him to fail, even tried to make him fail. They cared little if the tyrant was defeated, only about their own petty intrigues.

He remembered now, the ship with the orange pennant, which Libo had chosen to save. But how did these bastards know about it, and what was their interest in it? If the ship was so important to them, why had he not been informed to be on the lookout for it? He knew that Postumus and his colleagues whispered about the state of his sanity behind his back. Perhaps they had excluded him out of that fear alone. Very well, he thought. If they wished to treat him with such disregard, expecting him to somehow know their wishes but withholding the critical information he needed to fulfil them, then he would play the part of the mad admiral they all believed him to be.

“Come here, my pet,” he smiled and held out another almond for Odulph.

“For Jupiter’s sake, Bibulus, stop playing with that ape!” Postumus said hotly, rising from his chair. “Did you find the ship with the orange banner, or didn’t you?”

“You already know that, my old friend.” Bibulus smiled churlishly back at the irate senator. “Otherwise, you would not be here. Haven’t your spies ashore kept you informed? I’m sure you have enough of them in Caesar’s camp. I’m sure you even have agents hidden throughout my fleet. Don’t think I have not seen the mysterious pigeons taking flight from my ships at odd times of the day.”

Postumus gazed back at him defiantly, but said nothing.

“Well, then,” Bibulus said resignedly. “As I told you before, I burned the tyrant’s ships – every last one. They were all Caesarian scum. They’re all dead. The gods willed it, so it was done. There’s an end to it.”

Postumus fidgeted, red-faced and obviously enraged, but Flavius placed a hand on his arm to steady him.

“The orange-flagged ship, too, Admiral?” Flavius asked carefully. “No survivors?”

Bibulus sensed that the aide already knew the answer, and it perturbed him greatly to have to give it. Who were they to question him so? He carried imperium at sea, not these impotent politicians. Damn them and all their subterfuge! Damn their orange-bannered ship! They made it sound so important, as if it had borne the vestal virgins, when it had probably carried nothing more than a shipment of personal luxuries for the lazy Senators in Thessalonica. It was well known that many of the exiles regularly corresponded with those left behind in Italy to keep tabs on their estates. Bibulus was tired of it, and he resented having to walk gingerly to accommodate the personal needs of those who contributed nothing to the advancement of the cause.

“I respectfully ask you again, Admiral,” Flavius said after waiting several long moments for an answer. “Were there any survivors?”

Bibulus smiled and fed another almond to the heavily breathing Odulph. “One only – a centurion – one chosen by the gods.”

“Excuse me, my lord?” Flavius seemed confused.

“He fought like a lion, that one,” Bibulus said distantly, gazing upon Odulph as if he were in a trance. “Like a wild tempest, he fought, like a storm unleashed upon his foe. He was savage, yet honed and refined, like the perfect edge of a sword, fluidly and naturally moving amidst the deadly points arrayed against him. He struck down his enemies as an artist weaves a fine embroidery.”

Postumus seemed beside himself at this poetic indulgence, but Flavius ignored it and pressed on.

“Was there not a noble aboard, Admiral, of legate rank?”

“A noble?” Bibulus put a finger to his lips and pretended to consider, fully remembering the noble that Libo had begged him to spare. “Let me see…oh, yes, there was one. Of course, I caught sight of him only moments before he was slain. Had I been told that he was important, I might have intervened on his behalf. Sadly, no such word reached me.”

“Do you play games with us, Bibulus?” Postumus said irritably. “Of course you knew of his importance. You were the one with which he intended to meet!”

Bibulus did not understand what in Neptune’s deep blue sea Postumus was talking about, but it delighted him to see the senator so infuriated.

“Alas, that is a meeting he shall not be able to keep now,” Bibulus said, wishing to enflame the senator more. “For, certainly, the beasts of the sea are having him for dinner.”

“By Juno, Bibulus!” Postumus exclaimed like a heated kettle blowing its top. “You have really gone too far this time! Of all the imprudent deeds you have done in your life, this is far beyond anything -“

“What of the centurion, Admiral?” Postumus was cut short by Flavius, who had remained composed throughout, staring directly across at Bibulus. “We wish to speak with him at once. Please summon him here without delay.”

“Does the Senate now concern itself with the junior officers of our enemy?”

“Not the Senate, you rascal!” Postumus snapped. “Enough of this foolery! Your little jest is up. You know why we are here. Now, have the centurion brought here at once that we may unravel this knot you have tied.”

Bibulus could not imagine what these two fools might gain from talking with the centurion. In the week since the destruction of the transports, Bibulus could not remember setting eyes on him a single time. Presumably, the big warrior now stroked an oar on the lower decks with the hundreds of other slaves. The man’s fate had not been important to Bibulus, so he had quite lost track of him. It would have been a simple thing to send for him, to obediently do as they asked, but Bibulus did not wish to give Postumus, or his intrusive aide, the satisfaction of finding anything they had come looking for.

“That is not possible,” he finally answered.

“Why not, sir?”

“The man was transferred to the Remus  under Commodore Libo, and the Remus  is now more than a hundred leagues from here.”

“Do you mean to stand by that preposterous story, Bibulous?” Postumus asked incredulously.

“I do.”

Bibulus suspected the senator’s spies had already informed him that the centurion was aboard the Argonaut , but he had chosen to lie anyway. If the bastard wanted to speak to the centurion, then let him first admit to having agents aboard.

“Neptune’s arse!” Postumus struck his hands together in frustration. “Neptune’s arse, Bibulus! Why do you force our hand so?”

“Be careful not to mock the gods too often, Senator,” Bibulus replied, eyeing him coldly. “You are still at sea, and nowhere is a mortal more at the mercy of the divinities than on the high seas.”

Postumus and Flavius exchanged uncertain glances, as if they were not sure whether they should take his words as a threat, or as more of his vain ramblings. They exchanged a few whispers before facing the admiral again.

“When will Commodore Libo return?” Flavius asked.

“Difficult to say. He has orders to stop the Rhodian fleet at all hazards before it reaches Italy. Neptune knows how long he may have to lie in wait for them, if they come at all.”

“I must mention that I am somewhat concerned for your health, Marcus,” Postumus said, suddenly pleasant, his entire demeanor changed, as if the heart of the discussion was over and now only civilities and courtesies remained. “Your clothes hang on you like rags, my friend. I do wish you had not turned down the nourishment we offered. You carry a heavy burden on your shoulders, you know. And how is your daughter, Marcus? What would she be now, in her eighteenth year?”

“Calpurnia is twenty,” Bibulus replied guardedly, the mention of his daughter sending a shudder of anxiety through him. Postumus had asked about her in an off-handed fashion, but Bibulus understood the true intent of the remark. The senator was coolly reminding him that any resistance on his part could have long-lasting or fatal ramifications to his family. The thought of it made his heart feel like it weighed ten stone, the pain over the loss of his sons returning like that of an old wound. Calpurnia was the only family he had left, his one weakness. He could not lose her. He must not lose her.

“I have not laid eyes on her in many years,” Postumus continued. “I imagine she must be a beauty to behold now. Tell me, did she remain in Rome, as the dear families of so many of our colleagues were forced to do, or did she accompany you to Corcyra?”

“She is in Corcyra, Senator. Neither of us has been to Rome in many years. She was with me in Syria during my proconsulship there. I will rejoice on the day when I can show her the ancestral home of the Calpurnii of which the poor child scarcely has a memory.”

“I sympathize with you, Marcus. I, too, have children who have seldom seen Rome. Perhaps, soon, both of our families will return to the great city we both cherish.”

Postumus continued the small talk. He made no more mention of Calpurnia, and his conversation carried none of the venom of his earlier remarks. He talked of the state of the army, of Pompey’s health, and many other happenings throughout the eastern provinces. It was not unpleasant, but it felt artificial, as that of a politician preparing to make a run up the cursus honorum. Throughout, Bibulus’s thoughts drifted to Calpurnia. It had been more than a month since he had last seen her, standing on the wharf in Corcyra waving to him and smiling sadly as his launch pulled away. The thoughts of his daughter filled him with regret and guilt. Regret over the years of her youth wasted in some remote eastern province, while she could have been happily frolicking with her peers in Rome. Guilt over the shame she might suffer someday should he not wipe the blight of his past failures from the memories of the political elite. And guilt over the anguish in her eyes which he could never escape. He could ignore the sidelong glances of the marines and sailors, the murmurings of his officers, even the ridicule of Senators like Postumus, but he could never ignore that grieving look from his devoted daughter, those pained eyes that were like a mirror to his inner soul, and which confirmed what he inwardly suspected about himself – that the man whom she called father truly was sinking into madness.

After his guests had left, Bibulus watched through the portal as the sloop pulled away, Postumus and Flavius seemingly immersed in a heated discussion. They had not found what they had been looking for, that much was evident, and he swore never to let them bring his fleet to heel again. There was coastline to patrol, and this little diversion had already cost him several miles of headway. Antony’s armada could be driving east at this very moment.

At the next opportunity, he would send a personal letter to his own allies in the Senate. Perhaps that bastard Postumus would be castigated, if not exiled, once they discovered that he had been trying to undermine the authority of the admiral of the fleet in the pursuit of personal business. Postumus and his cronies were not afraid to flex their political muscle. Well, neither was he.

Bibulus strolled over to the table where a basket of figs had been placed by the senator’s bald servant, the one wearing the curved sword. The unspeaking man had remained outside during the entire conference, apparently standing guard over the figs, and preventing any sailors from touching them. This had been at the behest of Postumus who, as he departed, expressed his wish that Bibulus would break down and at least enjoy a portion of the sumptuous meal. It had been a kind gesture, perhaps a peace offering to make amends for all of the earlier insults.

The aroma of the fruit caught Bibulus’s heightened senses and made his stomach churn. It had been easy to display pluck in front of his guests, but now that they were gone the hunger pangs were more intense than ever. The temptation was driving him to delirium. Before he realized it, he had reached for one of the figs and had taken a bite. It had been long since he had eaten such things, and his mouth went wild with the sensation, almost rejecting it. It tasted bitter, at first, but then the sweet flavor he remembered so well filled his mouth and he savored every bite. Within moments, he had eaten two more. But before he devoured a fourth, he regained control of his senses and cursed his momentary lapse.

A sudden guilt washed over him. How would he know how far he could push his men if he did not suffer as they did? He knew that he must reject such pleasures.

At that moment, Odulph began to protest in his cage, making animal-like grunts and pointing a gnarled finger through the bars at the basket. Presumably, he craved some of the figs, too, but the manner in which he protested was more violent than Bibulus had ever witnessed before. Odulph jumped up and down, shaking the cage like a wild beast, repeatedly pointing at the figs on the table. Bibulus would have none of this defiance. Deciding that even auguries needed to be disciplined at times, he swept up the basket, marched to the open portal, and dumped the remaining figs into the sea.

He fully expected Odulph to erupt with anger over having been deprived of the morsels, but instead the creature drew strangely quiet, as if it was the presence of the figs that had disturbed him so.

Suddenly, Bibulus felt a massive pain surge through his stomach, enough to make him double over. The ache was deep and severe, but it eventually abated, and he was able to stand upright again. It left him wondering how many in his fleet must be suffering from the same malady.

Perhaps he had kept the fleet at sea for too long.

Again, a shooting pain wracked his mid-section, but this time it did not subside. The room began to spin, and the next moment he was on the floor shivering, his body oozing a cold sweat from every pore. This was certainly beyond hunger, and between unconscious moments, he tried to cry out, but every gargling attempt only fouled his mouth and throat with a foamy mixture of saliva and blood.

During one moment the pain eased enough for him to notice that Odulph was silently watching him, the one eye distinct amidst a mat of hair pressed against the bars. It was at that moment that everything became clear to Bibulus, as if a curtain had been lifted from his mind. He remembered now, the subtle movements of the slave who had brought the figs to his cabin. Postumus and Flavius were saying their goodbyes, and Bibulus had thought it odd when the slave lingered beside the table for a long interval after they had left. Bibulus had been about to dismiss the slave, but before he did, Postumus had re-entered the cabin under the pretense of forgetting his cloak. Bibulus had turned away from the slave at that moment, and certainly that was the moment when the slave tainted the figs with some kind of poison. The bald man with the sword was not a slave at all, but an assassin.

As Bibulus fought to remain conscious, his mind reeling from both the poison and the sudden revelation that he had been murdered, his thoughts strayed to Calpurnia. What would become of her, poor child? Would she live the rest of her life in mourning? Would she be married off to some noble and live a life fitting her station, or did Postumus have an assassin arranged for her as well?

As the pain intensified and his limbs began twitching nearly uncontrollably, Odulph still watched him with the single, wide eye, and Bibulus could see that it carried a look of sadness. Bibulus realized now that Odulph had surely seen the assassin’s movements, and he had tried to warn his master – a warning that Bibulus had misinterpreted as insolence.

Odulph had remained loyal to the end, and that thought gave Bibulus some comfort. His spasm-wracked hand then suddenly clenched on something near his chest, something small and metallic. He realized that he had taken hold of the finely polished key on the gold chain that hung from around his neck.

His numbed lips managed a smile. The game was not over.

Bibulus now summoned every last measure of strength left in him. He crawled on his belly, pulling himself toward the cage, his heart pounding like a drum at ramming speed, the pain more intense with each movement. When he finally reached the bars he managed to pull himself to his knees and peer directly into Odulph’s curious eye. A gnarled hand nervously stroked the overgrown trusses.

"You, and only you, have been my loyal vassal," Bibulus gargled in a strained whisper, each breath less filling than the last. "Now, you shall be the instrument of my vengeance."

Bibulus then held up the key in his trembling hands, and feebly inserted it into the lock that fastened the door to the cage. But lifting the key had consumed all of his remaining strength. All animation left his face. First his hand dropped to his side, and then his body slumped to the deck, lifeless before it came to rest, a mass of blood instantly oozing from his mouth and nose to find the cracks and pores in the weathered timber.

The lifeless eyes of Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus – consul of Rome, proconsul of Syria, Admiral of the fleet – stared hollowly at the key that remained inside the lock, and the grimy, hair-covered hand that now reached for it.

VIII

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The morning sun peeked over the sharp, ridge-lined finger of land. The storms of the previous days had passed, and now only a whisper of a breeze floated out over the glittering sea. Here, the rocky coast was too often lashed by wind and wave to attract human settlement, but the passing sailor must not be deceived by its unspoiled aspect, any more than he should by a chaste virgin lingering outside a bordello. For many a galley-borne hero of civilizations past had beheld these same towering white cliffs and foam-shrouded shoals over the course of a millennium. The Phoenicians, making their way to far off Africa to raise Carthage so valiantly from the dust, burgeoning its own culture and traditions, but now forgotten and returned to the dust. The wayward Trojans, under the fabled Aeneas, fleeing from their vanquished city, led by the gods to the land of the Latins to found a new empire that would rule the world. The mighty Athenian fleet, at the height of its greatness, under the reluctant Nicias, pointing their bows toward resolute Syracuse to sail unto ultimate tragedy. The mercenary fleet of King Pyrrhus, with war elephants trumpeting anxiously in their berths, eager to be afoot on Latin soil to crush out the lives of so many Roman youths. Might the generations of man intersect by an imprint of a memory, this sight that had endured through the ages, unmarred by time and tide, would have been a common thread.

On this day, it would be the last sight beheld by many more such warriors.

Three dozen vessels in even succession crept out from a narrow cove, their oars caressing the water's surface to the rhythm of the drum. When the last ship had weathered the cape, the fleet abandoned the single-file line and effortlessly maneuvered into a formation resembling a giant diamond. An unintelligible order drifted amongst the staccato of the drums, and the lead ship, a quinquereme of three banks of oars, unfurled its giant square-rigged sail. Each of her consorts followed suit until a forest of purple canvas floated above the sea, catching every breath of the offshore breeze.

It was as fine a day for sailing as the Rhodian admiral might have hoped for. As he stood on the quarterdeck of the lead quinquereme, squinting his eyes to gaze back upon the long lines of sails behind him, he thanked the gods for the fair weather, and for the clear seas. His thirty-six warships had spent the last weeks ducking from one island to the next, from one hidden cove to another, traveling under moonlight when possible and anchoring at the first light of day that they might not be seen. Throughout the long and arduous journey they had managed to remain unnoticed with only one exception. This came when a sudden gale forced them to seek shelter in the abandoned port of Halieis on the east coast of the Peloponnese. The dilapidated little town had been largely empty, the crumbling walls of its centuries-old acropolis nearly overtaken by the brush, but the Rhodian admiral was sure at least one of the curious vagrants he had seen among the ruins had understood that the passage of so many warships would be valuable news to the Roman Senate, especially since the Senate had attempted to recruit these same warships to their own cause when their ambassadors had approached him weeks ago in Thrace. Now, the exiled Senators would know that he had gone over to the other side, and they would also deduce his ultimate destination.

But what had they expected? Did they not understand that he and his men did not put to sea for any causes other than gold and silver? Caesar had promised to pay ample sums of both, enough for every last seadog to spend the next year drunk on the shore. Thus, they sailed for the port of Brundisium where they were to reinforce Marc Antony’s motley assemblage of transports and then assist in ferrying the rest of Caesar's army across to Greece. With the anticipation of this gold at the forefront of their thoughts, they had made good time, swiftly skirting the Peloponnese, keeping the coast just within view. The lookout had been doubled, each man straining his eyes to study every crag and cove, expecting the entire Optimates fleet to pounce from each one. But the journey had been uneventful. No ambush had appeared to block their path, and now all that remained was the final leg, in which they would leave the surety of the coast and strike out across the sea to Italy.

The admiral had begun to think their journey favored by the gods, that they might reach their final destination without ever encountering the enemy. But then, the dreaded announcement came from the lookout.

“Masts on the horizon, sir! Several of them!”

The masts were not near the coast, as the admiral would have expected, but out on the open sea ahead, a mass of sticks riding along the distant mirror edge. Soon, narrow hulls appeared beneath the sticks with banks of oars rising and falling out of the shimmering expanse, the lead ships flying the purple standard of Rome, confirming his worst fears. The Optimates fleet had found them.

“I count thirty-eight ships, sir!” the lookout called. “Warships, every one! Heading straight at us! They’re cleared for action, sir!”

Could it be? The admiral dared to hope. Only thirty-eight ships meant this was not the entire Roman fleet, but only one or two squadrons. His fears had been predicated on the reports that the Roman fleet numbered in the hundreds. This was something quite different. In fact, the tables had perhaps now turned in his favor.

The two fleets drove at each other like two lethargic swarms of insects, the Rhodians with a new found confidence in the evenly matched numbers, the Romans pressing harder that their quarry might not have time to organize an effective defense.

The Rhodian admiral laughed at the Roman arrogance. For it was well-known that his fleet had no equal. The Rhodians were the masters of the seas. Perhaps the word had not yet reached these western lands, but from the muddy, tree-lined shores of the Euxine Sea down to the sunbaked coast of Egypt, every mariner knew of the mighty Rhodian fleet that had never been defeated in battle. For the right price, t


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hey would tip the balance of power in any conflict.

His captains were all proficient and well-drilled in large-scale engagements. Thus, the admiral did not have to give them explicit orders to set them in motion. He ordered the attack pennant run up. Upon seeing this, his captains knew what to do. They maneuvered their agile warships into formation as methodically as the players in an Apollonian dance. As the Roman fleet drew nearer, the Rhodian ships compressed into a circle around the admiral’s flagship and held station there as if they were bound by invisible spokes.

The arrangement gave the appearance of defense, but oh how the Romans would learn its true nature very soon – and before they could do anything about it.

In contrast, the overly eager Romans had assumed no discernible formation whatsoever. They came on at great speed, each racing to be the first to engage. The smaller and swifter triremes made up more than half of the Roman fleet, and these sprinted well out ahead of the lumbering quinqueremes until a good league of open water separated the two groups.

The Rhodian admiral beamed with delight when he saw this, certain now that the Romans' rashness would be their undoing.

As the front line of triremes drew within range, their ballistae began recoiling on their mounts, flinging their missiles at the nearer edge of the Rhodian circle. The range was too great for good accuracy, but some of the long bolts found their marks, slicing through rigging and skewering rowers at their oars. Most fell harmlessly into the sea. As they had been trained to do, the Rhodian ships held their formation, bearing the Roman fusillade, returning only a few ineffectual salvos, the merest appearance of a defense.

The Rhodian admiral nodded with approval at the discipline of his captains, for it was all a ploy meant to give false confidence to their attackers and lure them nearer. He waited patiently for the right moment. Then, when the overly confident Roman triremes had drawn too close to get away, he gave the order. Signal flags shot up the yard arm, and his hitherto passive fleet sprang into action. In perfect unison, his ships broke formation, their glimmering oars coming to life with a sudden alacrity. They fanned out, leaving the tight circle which had given the illusion of fewer numbers and drove into a line stretching longer than that of the Roman triremes. Alarmed at the suddenness of this movement, and suspecting a trap, the Romans backed water and brought their rocking hulls to a stop. But this only played into the hands of the Rhodian line which did not seek to engage the Roman ships in a missile exchange. The Rhodian vessels on the flanks had been carefully chosen for their speed and skill with the ram. Now, with great litheness, they swung around like long arms to embrace the Roman line, and then drove straight at the stalled wings. One by one the jagged edges of the submerged bronze rams ran at full speed into the exposed beams of the Roman triremes, turning the sea to foam and filling the air with the gut-wrenching sounds of lead-plated keels and giant oak girders snapping. Hulls shuddered such that their seams burst. Masts toppled, some over the side fouling other ships, some onto the decks crushing the men beneath. Many of the punctured ships filled with the sea and immediately began to sink, while others hung onto the rams like harpooned whales in the throes of death. With the flanks smashed, some ships in the center of the Roman line sought to come about in place, but most thought better of it, realizing that such a maneuver would expose their beams to the rams in the Rhodian line facing them. Left with few choices, each drove directly for the nearest Rhodian vessel, seeking a boarding action. But this, too, was precisely what the Rhodian admiral desired, since he had placed the ships with the largest crews and the best fighters in the center of his line.

The two lines of ships drove together amidst the incessant exchange of arrows. Grapples flew across the gaps between the hulls and the horrific melees began. Little maneuvering occurred after that, the trapped Roman triremes and the surrounding Rhodian ships transformed into a massive, floating arena. Cries of battle erupted here and there as sword and pike-wielding marines leapt from one grappled ship to another. The Romans were vastly outnumbered, many with Rhodian ships lashed to each side, but they fought courageously as hordes of howling mercenaries poured onto their decks. Shrieking marines, sailors, and rowers fought side-by-side, sharing shields and spilling Rhodian blood with every weapon they could find, slickening the decks with gore. They resisted bravely, but all of their valor could not withstand the overwhelming might of their attackers. Individual struggles quickly transmuted into a series of last stands, and, one by one, the Roman ships began to surrender.

The Rhodian flagship stood off well behind the tangle of vessels such that the admiral could direct the battle. Observing from the stern deck, the admiral was pleased, and somewhat surprised, by the ease with which the triremes had been overcome. He looked past the embroiled ships to the line of Roman quinqueremes which had come to a stop a half league beyond. The Roman cruisers were holding back, undoubtedly fearful of meeting the same fate as their sisters. By all appearance they looked ready to turn and run, and by all logic they should, since they were now outnumbered, the other half of their fleet having been isolated, swallowed, and digested before their eyes.

The admiral considered ordering his grappled ships to break away from their prizes and reform for pursuit, and he was about to give this order, when dozens of fiery projectiles suddenly took flight from the decks of the Roman quinqueremes. The tongues of flame climbed slowly into the sky like the ejecta of an erupting volcano.

The admiral was not immediately concerned by this. It was undoubtedly an act of desperation, a parting shot to cover the Romans’ withdrawal. The quinqueremes were at the extreme range of their heavy engines, and he fully expected the flaming missiles to fall harmlessly into the sea. But as he watched the glowing projectiles draw their black arcs across the sky, his trained eye realized that the trajectories were not haphazard. They had been well-aimed, each one intended for a specific target among his own outlying ships. His deductions were confirmed when the fireballs came down with a thunderous roar, more than a third striking their marks and setting the crews of his tightly clustered ships into a panic. Like hail from Hades, the pitch-laden stone balls smashed through the wooden decks, setting everything in their path ablaze. The battle had come on quickly, and thus some of his ships had not had time to store their collapsed sails in the lockers deep within the damp hold. Long clumps of furled sailcloth lay strewn on the deck, like kindling arranged around a campfire. One after another of these ships burst into flames as the fiery projectiles found the dry linen. Within moments, another enemy barrage had taken to the sky, this one descending on the ships missed by the first volley. These missiles fell with even greater accuracy, two and sometimes three striking a single ship, smashing through oak, armor, and flesh in their destructive passage, starting multiple fires in the lower decks. Many crews, after brief attempts at containment, leaped into the sea to escape the rising infernos.

In his many engagements at sea, the Rhodian admiral had never witnessed artillery employed with such precision, certainly never among the Romans. He found himself staring with open-mouthed admiration even as the fusillade wrought destruction on his own fleet.

The circle of Rhodian ships that had converged around the Roman triremes now resembled a great ring of fire, with most of the outer vessels ablaze. The crews of the untouched ships in the center, still in the final junctures of the boarding melees, were overcome by a wild panic upon seeing the fates of their screaming brethren. They hurriedly withdrew to their own vessels, no longer concerned with the capture of prizes, but only with escape, lest the horrendous fire spread amongst their own tightly packed ships.

The Roman quinqueremes now advanced, slowly picking up speed, never ceasing the barrage, and seemingly impervious to any missiles the Rhodians sent back in their direction. Whenever an unscathed vessel left the fiery circle, it immediately became the target of every Roman ballista until it, too, burned like the others.

As he watched with dejection, the Rhodian admiral realized that his defeat was sealed. He had fatally underestimated his foe, and now his ships would be fortunate enough should they escape, much less continue on their journey to Italy. It was time to withdraw.

“Signal the fleet,” he commanded. “Disengage. Let every ship fend for herself.”

The signal was given, and any of his captains who could read it through the smoke and the flames might do as they will. With a casual wave of his hand, the admiral ordered his own ship turned about and steered for safe waters.

As expected, the Romans did not pay the flagship any mind, for she was well removed from the heart of the battle and too far away to bother with, especially when they could simply wait for the easier prizes to emerge from the circle of fire. The wind soon shifted, masking the whole mass of embroiled ships in a cloud of black smoke, the screams of the burning and dying fading in the distance.

The admiral sighed, pondering the great loss of time and expense, and how quickly fortune had turned against him. It was almost as if the Roman commander had intended all along to sacrifice his triremes that he might use his superior artillery to win the day. But, whether it had been a coolly calculated plan, or simply the unpredictable nature of battle, he would never know.

The quest of the Rhodian fleet had ended in complete disaster. The admiral, however, would escape and live to fight another day. Of course, he would have to hide out in some sparsely inhabited part of the world for a time, until the kin of all those he had led to their deaths had quite forgotten about him. There was always a need for swords for hire on the Euxine Sea. He still had a good ship, and a good crew that was devoted to him. Perhaps, now that the Romans were busy fighting each other, he might try his hand at the lucrative life of piracy.

“Ship there, sir!” the lookout’s voice interrupted his thoughts. The man pointed at the billowing cloud of smoke in the flagship’s wake beyond which the battle still raged.

The admiral turned and looked just in time to see the high prow of a Roman quinquereme materialize from the smoke, her bow jumping from one crest to the next and tossing the seas aside as she came on at full stroke. She was alone, but her intentions were clear. She meant to engage the flagship, and she was closing at an alarming rate.

“Battle speed!” shouted the admiral with a managed coolness.

The whips cracked and the oars increased their pace, but the Roman ship did likewise, and still the distance between the ships diminished with every thrust. It was not long before flocks of arrows and bolts began flying between the vessels. As men fell all around him, transfixed with the deadly missiles, the admiral fully expected his flagship to be roasted like all of her sisters, but, surprisingly, no fire came from the Roman vessel. His own ballistae sent flaming bolts into the Roman’s bulwark, but these were quickly quenched by sailors who briefly exposed themselves to dump buckets of seawater on the flames. The Rhodian archers killed a few of these, but it seemed this had little or no impact, since the dead sailors were instantly replaced by others.

Seeing that he would eventually lose the chase, and that the Roman captain intended to board, the admiral began ordering wild maneuvers to throw off his opponent. Perhaps, if he turned sharply and often enough, the opportunity to grapple would never come. With any luck, the Roman might make a wrong turn and expose his beam to the flagship’s ram. But then, the admiral saw several projectiles fly from the Roman deck, each trailing behind it a long tether. Two of these managed to strike the flagship’s beam, driving firmly into the oak.

“Harpago!” one of his crew announced.

Both Roman harpoons had penetrated well below the railing and far from any portal. Thus, for a man to attempt to cut the attached hemp cable he would have to be lowered over the side. The admiral selected four of his most agile sailors for this, but all four were quickly feathered with Roman arrows the moment they left the protection of the bulwark. As the cable stretched taut, and the Romans slowly reeled the two ships together, the admiral donned helmet and sword, and took up position with his bodyguards and several dozen armed marines and sailors behind a wall of arrow-riddled shields.

As they all waited for the inevitable fight, the admiral snuck a peek over the brim of one shield to see a mass of Roman helmets and bristling sword points, assembled by the rail of the enemy ship and preparing to board. They looked to be formidable warriors with battle-maddened eyes that shined like pools behind the shadowy slits in their faceplates. But one stood out from the rest, and the admiral concluded that this man must be his adversary. For he wore a lapis blue cloak over a bronze cuirass and a white-plumed helmet on his head. Although the faceplate hid his features, the tailings of a beard covered the exposed neck beneath his chin. He stood at the forefront of the gathering, speaking in low tones as if to keep the eager warriors steady in the face of the slaughter into which they were about to step.

The admiral momentarily lost sight of the blue-cloaked officer when the two ships ground together, shearing off every oar, arrow, or javelin that had been protruding from that side. The impact knocked nearly every man on both ships to his knees. A silent interval passed, in which each man regained his feet. The next moment, the enemy horde began spilling over the bulwarks, slashing and jabbing, pushing back the dazed Rhodians, and establishing an ever-widening foothold. Although the two forces were nearly even in number, the methodical Romans found the gaps in the chaotic Rhodian defense. Where the mercenaries fought in pairs and threes, the Romans fought in squads, covering each other’s flanks, and moving instantly at every bidding of the blue-cloaked officer. He pointed his reserves into every gap in the lines, seeing opportunities where an untrained eye might perceive only a jumbled throng of swinging swords and battered shields. The Rhodians fell by the dozen, the course of the battle decidedly in the Romans’ favor, its direction changing only once, when the frantic rowers abandoned their oars belowdecks to storm onto the main deck, catching the Romans off their guard and slaying more than a dozen. But the composed Roman commander quickly recovered from this. He organized a counter-attack and regained control of the hatchways, ordering his marines to thrust a gladius through the neck of any man who dared emerge thereafter.

So, it would be defeat, the Rhodian admiral concluded – not only that of his fleet but also that of his ship, his crew, and himself. Surrender, of course, was out of the question. The senators he had spurned would undoubtedly salivate over his capture. They would demand his execution for joining with Caesar. Perhaps the blue-cloaked Roman commander was aware of this, because he had never once called out for him to yield, in spite of the many times they had made eye contact across the maelstrom of hacking weapons.

With hundreds of Rhodians lying mangled on the bloody planks, the inevitable moment came when the admiral and his bodyguards were all that remained. Pressed into a corner of the stern deck, his guard fought valiantly, holding their shields to protect their master before themselves, parrying and deflecting the ceaseless thrusts of gladius and pike. But eventually, one by one, they fell dead at his feet, leaving him alone to face the Romans. Intent on showing himself courageous to the last, the Rhodian admiral held his sword at the ready. He would take at least one of these Roman bastards with him when Charon ferried him across the Acheron to the underworld. But the blood-covered Romans abruptly stopped their advance, even as the dripping points of their extended weapons sprinkled the deck at the admiral’s feet. Several sharp commands were spoken in Latin, and then the Romans took several steps backwards, opening ranks and allowing the blue-cloaked officer through. Unlike the acrimonious nature of the marines, who clearly wished to perforate the admiral with two dozen iron-tipped pikes, the Roman commander approached in a wary manner. His armor and helmet were thoroughly painted with the lifeblood of his foes, but he had not been overcome by the same battle rage that possessed his men. The eyes that gazed back from behind the red-splattered faceplate were thoughtful and discerning.

The Roman commander brought his sword to his chin in a salute, and then bowed respectfully. The admiral returned the bow.

“My compliments, sir,” the admiral said in Latin with the utmost politeness.

“It will be my privilege to forward any personal correspondence you may have,” the Roman replied curtly, and then gestured to the deck before him.

The admiral sighed, fully understanding what was being offered. He gave a small appreciative smile. “The small chest in my cabin contains a few letters of no consequence to anyone but my kin. If they make their way to Rhodes, you will have my eternal gratitude.”

“You have the word of Scribonius Libo, they shall arrive safely.”

The admiral looked on his opponent with a brief moment of curiosity. He had heard of this Scribonius Libo, the new rising star of the Roman fleet, known for several recent naval victories. “My heart rejoices at having been defeated by a name as noble and glorified as that of Libo.”

“The day stretches on, my lord,” the Roman said, his tone stiff once more.

“Indeed it does, sir,” the admiral replied with an apologetic smile. “I will keep you no longer.”

Slowly and methodically, he removed his helmet and unlaced his breastplate, letting both clatter to the deck. Then, after a deep breath and one long look at the sea, he knelt and bowed his head, tilting it slightly to the side so that the Roman officer’s blade might encounter no obstruction in its deadly travel. The courtesies he had been offered by the Roman commander were very generous indeed. His choices were to accept death now, honorably, at the hands of this noble officer, who would make his death as swift and as painless as possible, or to be taken alive and turned over to the Roman Senate, who would undoubtedly have him publicly crucified as an example of what happens to those who aid Caesar. A quick death, or one that stretched out for days on end while the scavenger birds perched all around his withering form, pecking at his eyes, his ears, and his privates.

Considering those options, there really was no choice at all.

IX

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Libo wiped the blood from his sword while standing over the twitching body of the Rhodian admiral. His battle-worn marines cheered all around him and from every corner of the captured ship. The Rhodian fleet had been defeated – annihilated – and victory was theirs.

“Hail, Libo! Hail, Libo!” They chanted his name repeatedly, and he answered their salute by standing on the rail and raising his sword high above his head. This sent them into a higher state of euphoria.

They had done it. Their discipline and courage had won the day, in spite of the hunger and thirst that plagued them. Perhaps their aching bellies, and not his leadership, had been their chief impetus, since Libo could see that, on their own initiative and without any orders from him, a line of eager men had already formed to pass up stores from belowdecks and over to the Remus .

“Your name will be exalted on the Senate floor for this, commodore,” the mate called as he groped his way across the dozens of marines tossing the enemy bodies into the sea. When he was finally at Libo’s side, he added, “Perhaps it shall propel you to even greater fortune, sir.”

Libo could see that the man harbored something within him, that he was playfully withholding some information, but the exertion of the battle had left Libo too drained to guess or even care what it might be.

“Lookouts aboard the Remus  have spotted a ship approaching, sir. One of ours.” The mate assumed a forced somber tone, as he added, “She flies the black flag of mourning, sir, and she’s signaling.”

After a brief moment of consideration, Libo’s thought quickly converged on the worst news possible.

“Pompey?” he asked hesitantly. “Has Pompey been defeated?”

“No, sir. It’s not as bad as all that. It’s the admiral, sir – Admiral Bibulus. He’s dead, Neptune bless him.” After allowing Libo to process that information for a few moments, the mate added with a grin, “And you, sir, are ordered to return to Corcyra, with all dispatch. I’m guessing they want you to replace him. I’ve got ten denarii on it with the sailing master.”

Libo ignored him, but stared out at the approaching ship carrying the black banner. A moment ago, he was overcome with the joy of the victory. Now, a cloud had descended on him, and he did not know why. Though he grieved Bibulus, he could not perceive the admiral’s death as a tragedy. Too many had suffered under the whimsical notions of that troubled man. In fact, hearing of the admiral’s death had given him an odd sense of peace. It was only after the mate had mentioned the rest of the message that his spirits sank, as if the mate’s predictions had already come true and he bore the heavy burden of command on his shoulders. A thousand thoughts coursed through his mind at once, all of them weighty.

He looked down at the slumped body of the dead Rhodian admiral. His troubles were over. He would never have to deal with incompetent officers, insurmountable food shortages, and unconscionable Senators ever again. Perhaps he now drank goblets of wine in the afterlife with his fathers, laughing his merry head off.

As the news quickly spread throughout both ships, more cheers erupted. The ovation was meant to bolster him, but it had quite the opposite effect and he silently wished it would stop. He gazed into the dead Rhodian’s half-opened eyes and, for the briefest of moments – in the time that a porpoise might leap above the waves to disappear in the next breath – Libo wished he were with him.

X

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Calpurnia had not been surprised when news of her father's death reached her. She had been weaving in the garden of her father's seaside villa overlooking the bay of Corcyra, as she was fond of doing in the late afternoons that she might watch the shadows slowly stretch across the bay as the sun sank behind the mountains – the same time of day it was now.

She could see that same garden now from where she stood on the main deck of the moored Argonaut . Marjanita fidgeted beside her, and while Calpurnia gazed upon the shore, the irritable handmaid glared inboard, returning the stare of any passing sailor or marine who eyed her mistress in the least hostile manner. Calpurnia cared little if the sea-weary crewmen looked or not. Her mind was too filled with thoughts of what she had done, and what she still must do.

The colorful awnings and tiled roofs of the seaside town dressed the hills around the harbor, matching the equally vibrant sails and canopies stretched across the decks of the anchored vessels. The gray clouds that had marred her father’s funeral that morning had dispersed, letting the late afternoon sun draw long shadows among the hills and across the bay. A ribbon of smoke trailed into the sky from the town square, the remnants of the pyre that had burned hotly only hours ago.

He was gone now. Her father’s troubled spirit was free of the distresses of this world and now journeyed to the afterlife. Perhaps the prayers she had unceasingly chanted over the past weeks had been answered after all, and now his soul would truly find peace. But even that elusive prospect did little to soothe her guilty heart.

"Pardon me, my lady,” a voice said behind her. Calpurnia turned to see Naevius, the captain of the Argonaut , his face set in an expression to match his reverent tone. “I do not wish to interrupt your contemplations."

Marjanita scowled at the intrusion, but Calpurnia greeted him warmly, assuming the brightest smile she could manage. "You are not interrupting. You have been very kind to extend to me such courtesies today. I know I have distracted you from many more pressing duties."

"Not at all, my lady," Naevius said, standing aside as a pair of slaves lugged one of the late admiral's sea chests to the rail, where it would be harnessed to the ship’s crane and lowered to the waiting launch below. "I have no other duty on this day than to ease your grief in any way that I can."

"You are very kind," she replied cordially, though she suspected the polite captain was like all the others and had thought her father insane. He smiled kindly to her face, but was inwardly brimming with joy that he would not have to suffer another day under the mad admiral’s harshness and sometimes cruelty. Yes, she knew her father's faults. She knew them all too well, and thus she could not blame the sailors and marines for the many sidelong glances and bitter looks, as if she were the lingering essence of the insanity.

A whip cracked nearby in short succession. Calpurnia turned to see that the wielder was a paunch, short man with the blotches of a beard on his face. He laid into a large slave with great vigor and pleasure. The bare-chested man whom he drove did not have the face of a slave, though his body certainly seemed accustomed to manual labor. His physique contrasted to those around him as that of a powerful lion striding amongst foxes, and Calpurnia caught herself swallowing once as she watched his bulging back and leg muscles straining beneath one of her father’s larger chests. She had once seen three porters struggle to lift the same chest, and she marveled that any one man could bear so heavy an object.

“Move faster, damn you!” the potbellied man shouted venomously.

The slave was not moving slowly by any means, and she immediately got the impression that no pace would be fast enough for the irritable little man. The big slave simply stared at the deck, his face set like chiseled marble as he lugged the burden, never once acknowledging his tormentor, or the stings of the whip.

“I said, faster! Are you deaf? What was your century comprised of? I did not know Caesar recruited little girls into his service? You move slower than my morning turd! Oh, uh, excuse me, my lady.” This last was said when the irritable little man caught sight of Calpurnia. At first, he smiled at her and nodded respectfully. But then, after a rather blatant study of her figure, the pig-faced man raised his eyebrows and licked his lips in an expression so licentious that Calpurnia had the sudden urge to vigorously scrub her person and burn her clothes.

Upon seeing this affront, Marjanita stepped forward with her hand at her belt, but Calpurnia quickly waved her off, not wishing to cause a scene. The detestable man stared for several moments longer before cracking the whip again and leading the slave on.

“Must that little man be so malicious?” Calpurnia asked the captain, after the pair had passed.

“Oh, that is Barca the overseer, my lady,” Naevius answered apathetically, evidently having missed the inappropriate look. “I know it must be unpleasant for your eyes, but such treatment is sometimes necessary.” He turned to face her after the chest was swayed out over the beam under creaking cordage and straining hemp. “And I believe that is the last of the admiral's items from the hold, my lady. Shall I escort you to the admiral's quarters now?"

"Yes, captain. Please do.”

Naevius led her aft, past the clusters of slaves repairing weather damaged planks and cordage. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the gray-haired Postumus and his self-assured adjutant still lounging on the distant foredeck, as they had been ever since she had arrived, both staring in her direction as they spoke privately to each other. They made no effort to veil their curiosity, as if she were an intruder here. They had arrived on the flagship well before her, perhaps by design, perhaps by coincidence, and that had been unexpected. If she had been mildly surprised when she saw the senator at the funeral that morning, she was in utter shock when she had climbed from the launch to the Argonaut’s  gangway and had been met by Postumus and his smug aide.

“Lady Calpurnia, how deli


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ghtful to see you here,” the senator had said smiling, though the earlier sympathy in his tone had all but vanished. “Allow me to introduce my adjutant, Sextus Flavius.”

Calpurnia had nodded to the perfunctory bow of the young man. While she had forced herself to smile courteously, he had regarded her with a dismissive nature, as if her father’s death now made her irrelevant.

“It warms my heart to see a daughter so devoted to her father’s memory that she would go to such lengths,” Postumus had exclaimed in a patronizing tone. “But should you not be in mourning, my dear? It vexes me that you feel the need to intermingle with these common sailors. I assure you, Captain Naevius is a capable man. He can have your father’s things sent ashore without you ever troubling about it.”

“Your concern is touching, Senator,” she had replied. “But I must put my grief aside for the time being, until I have fulfilled my duty to my father.”

“What duty could be so unjust as to require a noble Roman lady to roam about the decks of a foul-smelling warship filled with all of its hazardous equipage, not to mention hundreds of voracious men?” he had spoken to her disagreeably, as a parent might tell a child not to cross their eyes lest they get stuck that way.

“You forget, Senator, that I have accompanied my father to nearly every one of his foreign assignments. I am well-acquainted with the dangers of ship life. That is why I have brought Marjanita with me. As to why I am here, there are a few personal matters I cannot entrust to any man – not even to an officer as adept as Captain Naevius.”

Postumus had cast an indeterminate glance at Flavius before responding. “How charming you are, my dear. Well, I suppose there can be no harm in that.”

“I would advise you to be swift, my lady,” Flavius had spoken up quite abruptly. “This fleet will sail once the new commander has arrived, and I am sure you do not wish to get stuck aboard.”

“Of course she wouldn’t,” Postumus said, in answer to Flavius but still looking into Calpurnia’s eyes.

The flippant remark about her father’s replacement had bothered her more than she had expected it to. Her father’s ashes were still floating about the town, for Juno’s sake, and these bastards had already appointed a replacement. That thought, added to the lackluster turnout at the funeral, and the senator’s condescending nature, had left her simmering long after Postumus and Flavius had left her company. But after a few moments of consideration, after she had managed to direct her focus back to her primary reason for being here, she realized that perhaps she was closer than ever to finding what she was looking for.

Why was Postumus aboard the Argonaut ? Captain Naevius had given her a flippant explanation for it, “an inspection, my lady, nothing more,”  – but she did not believe that. The senator’s presence here, his multifaceted nature which she had only witnessed for the first time today, and his apparent desire for her to finish her business quickly and leave, all fit perfectly into a profile that had been forming in her mind for many months.

Now, as she followed Naevius aft, Postumus and his aide were still watching her every move, and quite overtly. The senator bore the same expression of barely concealed pleasure that she had seen at the funeral, as if her determination amused him. Flavius’s face, however, was quite different, and it sent chills through her. It was even and unfeeling, not mournful, not pleased, not angered, simply calculating, as if the senator’s aide were working out some intricate puzzle in his mind, and had the utmost confidence that he would solve it.

“Here we are, my lady,” Naevius said when they reached the ornate linen curtain drawn across the entrance to the stern cabin.

“I assume everything has been left untouched?" she asked, momentarily putting aside her contemplations.

The captain avoided her gaze, but nodded. "It is as it was on that tragic day at sea, my lady, just as you requested. Nothing has been removed, save for your blessed father and a few items of food that we had disposed of long before your instructions reached us.”

She nodded and smiled, hiding her inward frustration. She had wished for all items, no matter how perishable, to be left undisturbed. Of course she suspected foul play in her father's death. How could she not, when he was reviled in so many corners of the republic? She had seen his decomposing body as the family slaves had prepared it for its fiery burial, and had been assured by them, and by her own eyes, that his body contained no wound of any kind. Naturally, she suspected poison, but how could such a thing ever be proved?

The sun-bleached curtain was parted. She entered the small antechamber and then passed through to the quarters beyond. She stopped just inside the doorway for several long moments, catching the faint aroma of the olive oil her father had often used on his weathered skin. The room had his essence and felt as though he had just left. The cot with blankets still ruffled. The chests lining the perimeter, some open, some with the contents spilling out onto the deck. The empty breastplate and helmet adorning the crosspieces in the far corner, facing her, as if watching her every move. The small table with charts rolled and strewn amidst a scattering of ornate paperweights, each resembling a horse or wolf head. Some charts were bundled, some crumpled and tossed aside.

"You see, my lady," Naevius said, waiting a respectable interval before entering behind her. "It is as we found it."

Calpurnia did not doubt that was true. She would have been more suspicious had every item been in its proper place. The condition of the quarters was like a reflection of her father's mental state. She crossed to the rack holding the armor and gazed curiously into the hollow eyes of the bronze faceplate, her lithe fingers tracing the features of the cold steel as though they were her father's.

"I will, of course, see that all is packed and sent ashore whenever you give the word, my lady," Naevius said carefully, his eyes glancing at the open window.

"I will not inconvenience you long, Captain," she replied, sensing the trace of urgency in his tone, and quickly deducing the reason for it. "Who has been chosen to replace my father?"

"It is only rumor, my lady, but it is said that Scribonius Libo has been given that honor."

"And when does he arrive?"

"The coastal watchers sighted his squadron yesterday, entering the straits. If that is true, he should arrive anytime now."

Calpurnia could see the harbor entrance through the window, the sea beyond glittering in the setting sun. No warships were approaching as far as the eye could see, only a cluster of fishing craft returning with the day's catch. She did not know Libo, other than to know that he had been trusted by her father.

As the setting sun peeked into the window frame, its orange rays gleamed against the bars of the cage in the opposite corner. Calpurnia had been so overcome with the memory of her father that she had quite forgotten about Odulph. But her father’s pet augury was not there. The cage was empty, its unlatched door creaking on its hinges ever so slightly as Argonaut  felt each swell of the harbor.

"Has Odulph been removed to the shore, Captain?"

"No, my lady. As I said, the quarters are as we found them. The creature was gone when we discovered your father. The door to the cage was found ajar, as you see it now. We suspect the creature was lost overboard."

"How curious," she said, fingering the lock that still held the key. She had seen that key so often hanging from her father's neck. He never parted with it, that she remembered. "Did Odulph take the key from him, or did he open the cage willingly?"

"Impossible to say, my lady."

"Or did someone else open it?"

"No one else entered this room."

"Are you certain, captain?"

"Quite certain. It was I who found him, on the floor, over there. There was no one else. The creature was gone, and the admiral was dead, Neptune bless him."

"I have never seen this key off of my father's person."

"Nor have I, my lady. I can only surmise that the admiral, for some reason, decided to unlock the cage just before his ailment struck, then the creature, confused in its sudden freedom, leapt out of the portal and into the sea."

"And why do you assume this? Might not Odulph have taken the key from my father's body, and freed himself?"

Naevius eyed her reluctantly, "I would have preferred not to show you this, my lady, but under the circumstances…"

He reached down and swept aside a carpet that had been covering the floor. Calpurnia gasped briefly when she saw the crimson stain on the wooden planks beneath, marking the spot where her father's body had been found. It was more than an arm's length away from the cage, too far for even Odulph's long arms to reach.

"I believe your father chose to open the cage, for some unknown reason, perhaps to perform one of his rituals. The creature made some sudden movement that took the admiral by surprise, a shock his overstrained body could not withstand. His heart froze, and he fell to the floor, dead. The creature panicked and leapt over the side. You can see there the bloody prints of the creature's stumps leading to the port hole. You know as well as I, its brain was little more than that of an ape. It had no knowledge of what it was doing."

"And you don't think Odulph killed my father?" she asked, more to see Naevius's reaction to the suggestion of murder.

The captain shrugged. "There were no marks on the body, my lady, and no handprints in blood as one might suspect had the creature strangled him."

"Perhaps there was another here, in my father's quarters, at the same time?" She watched him closely. "Did he have any visitors that day?"

The captain made a poor display of straining to recollect before answering. "None, my lady. The admiral spent most of the day in his quarters and was seldom seen on deck."

"Did the fleet have any visitors, captain? Anyone at all?"

He looked back at her, his face quickly turning to frustration beneath a thin layer of courtesy. "No, my lady. Now, I must leave you. I apologize, but there are many things to be done before Libo's arrival. Might I find someone to assist you in going through the admiral's things? The hour is getting late."

Calpurnia did not answer. She knew the captain wanted her and every trace of her father removed from his ship as soon as possible. What's more, she knew that he was lying. She gazed upon the bed, moved to it, and began to stroke the place where her father's head had spent its last night on this earth. She allowed a tear to streak down her face as the captain watched, and he grew visibly more uncomfortable at the display of emotion and the silence between them. Finally, when she felt that he had seen enough to pluck at the few heartstrings he had, she turned to face him.

"I have decided not to go ashore this evening, captain. I will sleep here tonight, in my father's bed. I will feel close to him, his scent, his aura, one last time."

"My lady," Naevius said, fumbling for the right words. "I wish nothing more than to accommodate you, but I am afraid that is quite impossible. The new commander will -"

"- will arrive at any moment, yes, I know. But his squadron is not yet in sight and the sun is nearly down. You know as well as I that he will not risk the narrow shoals of this harbor at night. So, he will not arrive until tomorrow at the earliest. And when he does, I am sure he will be delighted to hear how generously you treated his predecessor's grieving daughter and, with this one kind allowance, helped to mend her aching heart."

Naevius’s displeasure was evident on his face, but he eventually capitulated. "Very well, my lady. I will see that a guard is placed on your doorstep and that you are escorted everywhere you go."

"The guard at my door will be sufficient. I do not require such an escort."

"But I must insist, my lady. My men have been at sea a long time, and may not be in their right minds should they see a lovely lady such as yourself wandering the deck alone. Should any one of them insult you in the smallest way, I will certainly feed that man to the sharks, but it is wise to take such a precaution regardless."

"Oh, very well," she replied with a sigh.

"I will also place several slaves at your disposal to see to all of your bodily needs."

"Thank you, but the slaves will not be necessary. My own handmaid will suffice."

Naevius swallowed hard, as if her every word were a parry to his. "Then perhaps you would honor my officers by dining with us this evening? Senator Postumus has also been invited."

"That is most kind, captain. I would be delighted."

"Splendid. Well, until then, I will leave you in peace, my lady.”

Naevius ducked out of the room, his manner overly courteous as he left.

So, the senator was also staying the night aboard. The thought made Calpurnia’s heart skip a beat. Could it be so simple? Could her immediate suspicions be correct, and the answers she had come searching for so easily obtained?

Moments later, Marjanita entered the room. She had been waiting just outside in the antechamber.

"Shall I prepare these quarters for you, my lady?" the handmaid asked, her eyes revealing her surprise at the mess.

"No. Have my things brought aboard from the barge, and leave me in peace for a few moments."

"Yes, my lady, but please forgive me. I overheard what that oaf was telling you. Do not believe it for a moment, my lady.”

“Do not believe what?”

“Your father’s heart did not fail him, my lady. He was murdered! As I told you before, I was watching the stars on the night of his death. I am certain of what I saw. Mars reached his apogee just as the moon rose from a purple horizon, and such signifies the murder of a great man. There is no other meaning. Oh, do not believe that fool, my lady. A foul murder was committed that night, in this very room!”

XI

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When the handmaid had left, Calpurnia strolled to the window and gazed out at the anchored fleet riding on the glistening bay. It was a sight that never ceased to dazzle her. From this vantage point she could see nearly three dozen warships, each one a world unto itself, each with its own captain, its own officers, marines, sailors, craftsmen, slaves, and internal politics. The ships were like the republic, orderly and seemingly harmonious when viewed from without, but within filled with scheming and strife.

Between shifts in the breeze she heard a woman's laugh echo across the bay. There were victualing craft in the harbor, gliding lazily between the long shadows, rowing from one ship to another, providing everything from food, to clothing, to carnal pleasures. A group of half-dressed women were just leaving a nearby quinquereme. A mass of salivating men crowded against the rail, laughing and making obscene gestures. Obviously, the women were whores, and the gaggle of sea-weary men their most recent patrons. They waved back gamely to the sailors as their small boat rowed for the next warship down the line. They could not afford to rest while the fleet was in harbor, when a year's income could be had in the course of a few days. The lewd exclamations of the lascivious men, laced with some of the most bane euphemisms Calpurnia had ever heard, repulsed her. Yet it was simple and honest, and sometimes she longed for a simple and honest life. Did those whores on the barge have to bother with the facades of the elite? The men they served were plain and straightforward, with one purpose only, whereas the men she had to deal with were duplicitous and patronizing. At times, she longed for the obscurity of a commoner’s life, and dreamed of a day when the family's honor was not hers to defend.

As the only surviving child of Bibulus, Calpurnia now represented the family in all matters, taking the place that would have been fulfilled by her two brothers had they not both been murdered in Egypt. The deaths of Drusus and Quintus had been the tipping point, the brim over which her father's mind had spilled into madness.

She had not just lost two brothers on that tragic day, years ago, when the news of their deaths reached the governor’s villa in Antioch. She had also lost a father. She had cried for days on end, until her eyes could yield no more tears, but she never saw her father cry. From that day on, he never uttered their names, and she seldom saw her true father again. He was as a body from which the soul had flown. In the years since, there had been only a few fleeting moments in which she saw the same smile and felt the same warm touch she had once known, but the unfeeling shell of a man was always quick to return. He began consulting the auguries more often than ever, pursuing the supposed will of the gods at every turn, the murder of his sons seemingly forgotten. Odulph was his preferred conduit to the deities, and in some ways his replacement for Drusus and Quintus, for she had often heard him discoursing with the mute captive into the late hours of the evening. He would talk while Odulph grunted from his cage, whether out of concurrence or irritation her father did not seem to care. Over time, through some twisted interpretation of Odulph’s eating habits, or bowel excretions, or the patterns in his lice infested hair, her father had convinced himself that the tyrant Caesar was to blame for all evil in the world, and that he must be destroyed. It had evolved into an obsession, in the end. Especially after he had been summoned back to the West to take command of the fleet against the tyrant.

She remembered the last time she had spoken with her father. The night was cold and rainy, and the fleet was set to sail the next day. She had planned to dine with him one last time, but was surprised to learn from the house servants that her father had taken a chariot off to a small shrine far into the hills of Corcyra, a habitation of the nymphs considered sacred by the locals. Calpurnia had immediately summoned her own chariot that she might go after him.

The place was in a narrow gorge closed in by rocky cliffs. There, a small marble shrine had been erected next to a fiery jet that issued from a hole in the ground. The immense flame seemed to have a life of its own, sometimes diminishing to little more than a torch, and then thunderously returning to the height of two men. Calpurnia had never seen it before and was amazed at how it continued to burn, even in the driving rain. She found her father there, as expected, his arms outstretched before the fire, his hair and tunic drenched, while some bearded hermit priest or caretaker of the shrine performed an incantation. The priest periodically dipped his hand into a ceramic vessel from which he drew out a pinch of a grainy substance, which from the aroma in the air Calpurnia took to be incense. The priest carefully handed the grain to her father, and then her father cast it into the fire. Each time he did this, he would glance with expectation at the priest who responded by shaking his head in disappointment, and then they performed the whole ritual again.

“Father, what are you doing here?” she had interrupted after watching the procedure repeated three times.

“Is that my dear daughter?” Bibulus had replied, turning his distraught face to the darkness from which she came. “Is that you, my dear Calpurnia?”

“It is I, father. And I wish to know why you insist on such foolishness the night before you sail. You should be home resting in your warm bed. You will not have another peaceful sleep for quite some time. Why do you distress yourself so?”

“Oh, Calpurnia. I knew not where to turn. Odulph will not answer me, and I must know the will of the gods before I sail! I must know that they are on my side!”

He seemed at his wits end, peering into her eyes as a child might cry over a lost toy. Calpurnia had seen such behavior from him before, whenever Odulph was in a mood and would not respond to his rituals. She would never tell it to her father, but she knew that the broken man inside the cage was not a mindless animal as the captain of the Argonaut  and so many others believed. Odulph was a man – a living, breathing, thinking, and scheming man, like any other. He had learned to sense her father’s desperation, and often chose those times to be the least cooperative. Perhaps it was his way of gaining some sense of satisfaction, of wielding some measure of control, since his whole existence passed within the confines of the cage.

“I am sure the gods are with you, father,” she said, consolingly. “You sail for a noble cause, to stop the tyrant from tearing our republic apart.”

“Really?” he replied, suddenly defiant towards her. “Then see for yourself!”

Bibulus thrust out his hand again, and the priest handed him a single grain of incense. Bibulus then closed his eyes and tossed the grain into the roaring flames. The grain passed through the bluish-yellow fire and emerged from the other side to fall onto the rocks beyond. Again, he looked at the priest who stared up at him with somber eyes and shook his head.

“There!” Bibulus said. “You see? The grain is not consumed.”

“It is raining, father. Perhaps it is damp -“

“No!” he interrupted, seemingly upset to the point of tears. “The priest says the nymphs always answer, rain or shine. And they say no . They say no , Calpurnia! Tomorrow, I sail to my own death, and Caesar marches to victory!”

As her father broke down before her, she shot a concealed look of anger at the priest who meekly adverted his eyes.

“Come now, father. Perhaps your questions are the problem.”

“My questions are simple. There can be no misinterpretation.”

“Please tell me.”

“I asked, will I defeat Caesar ? And the answer was no . I asked, will Caesar be defeated by another?  And the answer was no . Finally, I asked, will I survive this voyage?  And the answer was no , Calpurnia! No, no, no! I am doomed. That must be why Odulph would not answer me. He foresaw my death, and he did not wish to tell me. The poor creature.”

“Father, I am surprised at you. You know you cannot ask these fire nymphs about matters of death. They do not answer questions pertaining to death or marriage. Is that not right, priest?”

The bearded man nodded somewhat reluctantly.

“You were asking about matters of war, and the nymphs know nothing of such matters. I am surprised this man did not remind you.” Again, she eyed the priest threateningly. “Now, father. Think of something you know to be true, something in no way connected to marriage or death, and let us see what happens.”

She gave the priest a hostile look. He did not meet her gaze directly, but he seemed to comprehend her meaning. She had been watching him closely before, and noticed that this time he collected a grain from a different side of the bowl.

Bibulus took the grain, closed his eyes, and tossed it into the flame. Instantly, the incense flared up and was consumed, leaving a sweet aroma in the air. The priest smiled and nodded.

“There! You see, father! All is well.”

He turned to face her, all traces of worry now gone, as the rain streaked down the creases and lines on his face.

“I asked if I had a daughter that truly loved me.” He smiled, and then reached out for her.

She ran into her father’s arms and felt the warmness of his embrace. She felt the tenderness she had missed for so long, and suddenly she was that little girl again, the one in her dreams, who had no cares or worries, who laughed with her brothers and basked in the arms of her parents, listening to strangers and friends alike tell of what a great man her father was becoming and how he would someday be a consul.

They had stood like that for many long moments as the rain came down and the roaring flames fought for life. Eventually, without saying another word, they returned to their chariots and went home.

It was the last time she would ever hold him.

XII

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A cold night quickly fell across the harbor once the sun sank behind the hills of Corcyra. With the frigid air came a driving wind that sought out every pinch of exposed skin and chilled the blood and bones beneath. The freezing conditions quickly cleared the decks of the anchored ships, driving most of the crews below, leaving only the night watch to face the elements, wrapped from head to foot in cloaks and blankets.

The Argonaut  was no exception. Her decks were deserted, save for a handful of sailors, clustered around the crackling braziers and more concerned with staying warm than with their duties, and an unfortunate score of slaves who now scoured the deck with hand stones and icy water. These pitiable men, who had spurred the displeasure of Barca for one reason or another, were made to toil on their knees with hands frozen to the point of numbness. From time to time, Barca peeked his head above the hatchway to see that they still scrubbed, and quickly whipped any who had paused to bring life back into his hands.

Of course, Lucius was among those toiling on deck. Barca had taken every opportunity to mete out special punishment to him, completely disregarding the fact that Lucius pulled his own weight and that of any two of his comrades. Although Lucius showed no outward signs of misery, he was not made of stone. The sting of frozen fingertips grating against frayed hemp ached for him as it did the others. The lash bit just as deeply into his back, but he would never give the bastard of an overseer the satisfaction of seeing him in discomfort, so he toiled and endured, keeping the pain locked within him, as he had done many times in the harsh winters of Gaul and Germania.

Somewhere in Argonaut’s  warm interior, on one of the lower decks, the soothing tones of an aulos escaped from an open window and danced upon Lucius’s ears. The unseen musician undoubtedly played for the entertainment of his shipmates, but Lucius was thankful to him, whoever he was, for the pipe’s soothing tones transported him from this dismal place. The somber, majestic sound penetrated to the core of his soul and carried his thoughts to golden fields in distant lands.

“Look.” One of the men working beside Lucius whispered to him. “They throw another one to the sharks.”

He gestured to the forward hatchway where four slaves methodically passed a loosely wrapped corpse up from below. The slaves then carried the rigid form to the rail and heaved it over the side. It had all been done without ceremony, and the detail was already heading back for the shelter of the hatchway by the time the body splashed into the dark water below.

“Poor devil,” the man beside Lucius said. “I heard they found him this morning.”

“Who was he?” Lucius asked.

“A slave, like us. He was sent down to the hold last night to fetch a sack of grain – and never came back. That makes six this week. Six men struck down by the phantom of the lower decks.”

“Come now.” Lucius glanced at him skeptically. “A phantom? The bugger probably slipped in the dark.”

“Then how do you explain how they found him, stuffed into a dark corner with his neck nearly wrung around like it was a chicken’s?”

Lucius chuckled at the absurdity of it all, and continued scouring the deck.

“Believe what you like, tall man,” the man added fervently. “But I’ll never go down there. I don’t care if Barca’s whip is laid across my back for a week straight. There’s evil lurking in the bowels of this ship, I tell you! Some say it’s the ghost of the dead admiral, that he’s come back seeking vengeance on them that killed him. Some say -“ The man paused suddenly, apparently distracted by something on the stern deck. “Hello, what’s this then?”

Lucius followed his gaze aft to see that a woman had emerged from the cabin. A tiger-striped cloak was wrapped around her from shoulder to foot with the exception of the hood which was pushed back to reveal her smooth features in the pale moonlight. Her hair was tied back in a conservative fashion such that it hardly moved in the stiff wind. She appeared somewhat forlorn as she strode to the rail and gazed out at the sea, seemingly ignorant of the work party on the main deck and the sailors of the watch who briefly turned their attention toward her and then back to the warmth of their fires.

“Who is she?” Lucius asked.

“That is Calpurnia, the daughter of the late admiral,” answered the slave. “Bibulus may have been mad as Xerxes, but he produced a savory morsel when he sired that one. What think you?”

“Quiet! Barca approaches!”

Every man in the detail turned his attention back to the deck and added vigor to his stroke of the stone, just as the round form of


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the overseer ambled up from the hatchway.

“Good. Good!” Barca said after examining their work. His hands and face slippery with grease as he gnawed on a chicken bone. “You are making excellent progress, my asslings. At this rate, you should be finished by sunrise.”

Barca was in a good humor this evening, and the reason was plain. His speech was slurred and the aroma of spirits was carried on the wind wherever he moved. Lucius fully expected the paunchy man to to strike him or insult him as he walked by, but he did not, for Barca was distracted by the sight of the noble woman strolling the deck and his imbibed brazenness had apparently impelled him to approach her.

“A pleasant night for a stroll, my lady?” Barca said, stumbling and then bowing elaborately before her. When she did not acknowledge him, he added awkwardly, “A woman as lovely and attractive as yourself should not be -”

“Be silent!” the lady suddenly snapped. She cast a superior look at the overseer that could have made any army legate doubt the validity of his rank. “I did not invite your advances, you unpleasant scoundrel, nor I did ask for your company. Now, leave my presence, this instant!”

The lady evidently considered herself above the social level of the repugnant little man, and indeed she was, but where Lucius had often seen the more refined gentry handle such matters with inventive congeniality, the daughter of Bibulus employed no such duplicities.

Barca appeared tongue-tied. Either that, or his wine-degraded brain could not process the tongue-lashing he had just received. He turned on his heel and returned to the main deck, his face a mixture of confusion and anger. Before long, the whip was in his hand again, cracking across the frozen backs of Lucius and the others, the instrument to vent his aggravation. When the overseer finally disappeared down the hatch again, the slaves were cursing him under their breaths, fresh pains now added to their cold misery.

Lucius glanced aft as the stroke of his sanding stone allowed, sneaking glances at the noble woman who still stood by the rail, peering out into the darkness. She looked as she had before, but as he studied the scene in the scant lighting, he realized that something had changed. When she had upbraided the overseer, Lucius remembered seeing a line of hemp coiled on the deck by her feet. He could swear to that. Now, the rope was gone. It took him only a few moments to spy the missing line. Its bitter end had been fastened securely to the railing not two steps from the spot in which the woman stood, and the rest of the rope trailed through a scupper and over the side, the other end dangling out of sight in the water far below. As Lucius watched, the woman suddenly leaned over the bulwark, as if she had caught sight of something in the water and was following it with her eyes as it came closer to the hull. Then, she turned away from the rail and casually made her way over to the nearest brazier around which several of the night watch huddled. Quite different from her manner with Barca, the noble woman came to life, smiling and vibrantly engaging the sailors in friendly small talk. The sailors received her well, grinning and laughing at her pleasantries. They were quite taken with her, as were many of the slaves with Lucius who snuck pining glances at the sociable woman.

“If it’s warmth you seek, woman,” the man working near Lucius commented under his breath, loud enough only for the other slaves to hear. “Then bring your hidden fruits over here, that I may embrace them.”

The other slaves chuckled quietly at the jest, but not Lucius. He had stood too many midnight watches atop palisade walls deep within barbarian lands not to know a diversion when he saw one. While the others dumbly watched the distant young woman exhibit her wit and charm, he turned his attention back to the rope. It had not escaped his notice that the chatty woman had conveniently positioned herself such that her captivated audience were facing away from it.

As he watched, the rope jerked suddenly, stretching taut, as if it were a giant fishing line that had just snagged a creature of the sea. Straining his eyes to pierce the darkness, he saw a glistening figure climb up over the rail and noiselessly drop onto the deck in a crouched position. The figure moved nimbly, as one skilled in the arts of stealth and infiltration. As the moonlight danced along the dripping, naked form, Lucius realized that he was looking at the lean, smooth curves of a woman. She was of a slighter built than the noble woman, but more muscular, her carved biceps and trim shoulders clearly outlined in the pale light. A long trail of dripping hair swayed behind her neck as she scanned the deck immediately around her, either not noticing or not caring that Lucius observed her. She had the full lips, high forehead, and smooth features of a woman of the east, and it suddenly dawned on him that this was the handmaid he had seen by the side of the noble woman earlier that day. As if to confirm his suspicions, the woman quickly padded away aft, her slick, naked form soon swallowed up by the darkness near the stern cabin. As expected, not long after, the noble woman made her apologies to the sailors by the fire and excused herself, also disappearing aft.

As Lucius continued pushing the cold stone across the rough deck planks, he pondered why the daughter of the late admiral would go to such lengths to get her handmaid on and off the ship unnoticed. Where in Neptune’s trident had that agile nymph of the sea come from? The Argonaut  sat near the center of the harbor. The nearest land was at least a mile in any direction – a daunting swim for anyone, especially through frigid water. Obviously, the noble woman was up to something and did not want any of the crew to know about.

But it was not the secretive boarding, nor the noble woman’s intentions, whatever they were, that now wracked Lucius’s brain as he pushed the stone back and forth across the deck. He had noticed an odd familiarity when he had seen the handmaid on deck earlier that day, but now, after seeing her again, he was certain that he had seen her before, in another place, far from this ship. He spent the rest of the watch rummaging through his memories, both recent and in the distant past, but no matter how much he strained his tired mind, he could not seem to put the time and the place with the woman.

But he knew her face, and he felt confident that, in time, it would come to him.

XIII

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In the stern cabin, Calpurnia waited patiently as Marjanita toweled off her lithe body and carefully donned her clothes. The neatly folded clothes lay on the cot exactly as Marjanita had left them nearly four hours ago, when she had dropped into the sea and had begun a spirited swim to one of the other anchored vessels. Calpurnia now watched the rippling muscles along Marjanita’s lean arms as she brushed away the seawater, and how her small breasts shook ever so slightly as she wrung out her long hair into a vessel on the floor. Calpurnia did not gaze at Marjanita out of attraction, but out of admiration for strength and physical skills she herself would never possess. Though she had seen the Syrian woman swim many times before, she was always mesmerized by her ability to become one with the water. Marjanita’s slim form darted amongst the white-caps in the harbor as easily as might a newly freed dolphin. And her abilities in the water were only outmatched by those on land. She could scale practically any cliff or wall with ease, could run seemingly for days, and could fight as well as a man – in many ways, better than a man.

Calpurnia belonged to the privileged of Rome. Marjanita was her servant, her handmaid, her protector and bodyguard, but in many ways Calpurnia envied her. She could only dream of having such individual power, such freedom of spirit. The eastern woman certainly possessed the skills to leave her life of servitude anytime she wished, but she was sworn by a blood-oath never to do that. Marjanita had been at Calpurnia’s side for many years, long enough to know Calpurnia’s intimate secrets, and to know Calpurnia herself better than any other living soul. In contrast, Calpurnia was not precisely sure of the Syrian woman’s origins. Marjanita seldom spoke of her past. It was rumored she had been trained in the assassin schools of Mithridates, the Parthian king of Media, and was a favored weapon of the patricide king. When Mithridates was deposed by his brother Orodes and fled to Roman-controlled Syria, Marjanita came with him and served as his agent, venturing back into Parthian territory to complete some one hundred missions against the vassals of Orodes. After Mithridates attempted to regain his throne and was ultimately defeated and executed by Orodes, she returned to Antioch in the procession of Parthian exiles who had the misfortune of throwing their allegiance behind Mithridates.

How Marjanita had ended up a common criminal only a few years later, was somewhat vague. Calpurnia knew that she had been arrested for murdering one of the exiled Parthian generals in his sleep, the circumstances around which were a mystery. Some stories said that she had been in love with one of the exiled Parthian princes who had also found refuge in Antioch, that the prince had been spirited away in the night by Orodes’s agents, and that he had been betrayed by the same general who had awoken with Marjanita’s dagger buried in his throat. Marjanita had been set for execution, and had been brought before Calpurnia’s father seeking clemency. Perhaps Bibulus had been in a merciful mood that day, because he conceded, agreeing to spare her life if she swore an oath to be the protector of his daughter Calpurnia to her dying day. In the years since, Marjanita had honored her oath with a vigor unmatched by any other. She had rejected her former life, and lived for Calpurnia alone. She guarded Calpurnia as if she were her own body, always eager to perform whatever task her mistress might desire. She had also been helpful in warding off the dozens of elderly Roman aristocrats looking to join with the house of Bibulus by entering into a marriage with Bibulus’s young daughter. It had taken only one glimpse of Marjanita’s pin-like dagger to dissuade most of them.

Of late, however, Marjanita’s loyalties seemed to be more procedural than full-spirited. Ever since they had arrived in Greece, Calpurnia had noticed that something weighed heavily on Marjanita’s mind. She was more irritable than usual, and Calpurnia suspected she worried, or brooded, over someone in her distant homeland. Calpurnia had never known Marjanita to be affectionate in any way, but she had on two occasions seen her gazing off to the east from the balcony of the villa. Those had been the only two times Calpurnia had ever seen Marjanita’s face not set in something bordering on perturbation. It had afforded her a brief glimpse of the woman beneath the assassin, and had left her wondering if Marjanita was beginning to tire of the oath she made to a man who was now dead.

“Tricostas sends you greeting, my lady.” Marjanita said through quivering, blue lips, after she had donned her dress and had wrapped her wet hair in a blanket. “He is pleased that you are well.”

Tricostas was captain of the Faun , a trireme moored half a mile away. He was one of Calpurnia’s most trusted friends. They had been friends since childhood, and he was still loyal to her. She had often relied on Tricostas to give her dependable updates on her father’s health and state of mind, and he had always kept their communications confidential. She had faith in the word of Tricostas, not Naevius, or any of the other captains of the heavy ships. They were all political appointees with their own agendas.

“Yes, yes,” Calpurnia said impatiently. “But tell me, Marjanita, does he know anything about my father’s death?”

“Nothing more than he has already shared with you in the messages sent by carrier bird, my lady. He knows nothing of the circumstances surrounding the admiral’s death, but he did confirm that a small vessel bearing the flag of the Senate went alongside the Argonaut  earlier on the same day the admiral was murdered.”

“Does he know who was aboard that craft, or which Senators met with my father?”

“No, my lady. The Faun  was on the opposite edge of the fleet at the time. He only knows that the Senate vessel had already departed by the time your father was found and pronounced dead.”

Calpurnia slapped her hands together in frustration. “Postumus had something to do with it. I know it, Marjanita. The way he acted at dinner tonight, complacent and amiable, heaping compliments on the Argonaut’s  officers, entertaining them with humorous stories, as if he were running for Praetor again. I would bet my life he was the one who visited my father that day.”

“It is very likely, my lady.”

“I know he is guilty, Marjanita. If not of personally murdering my father, then of arranging it. I forced myself to wear a pleasant face tonight. His stories were sordid and crass, but I listened to them all while he had every man at the table roaring with laughter. He wanted it to bother me. I could see it in his eyes. He wanted me to leave, Marjanita, and I wanted to. He expects me to run home crying like a little girl. He wants me out of his way. But I will remain here, and I will defy him.”

“Do you believe him to be the one you seek, my lady?”

Calpurnia looked at her for a long moment. “Yes. In my heart, I do.”

“Then this murder of your father gives you yet another reason to destroy him. The gods demand nothing less. The pig is well protected by those two bodyguards of his, and his aide, but I know I can get to him. Give me the word, my lady, and I will bury my dagger in his heart before the sun sets again.”

“No, Marjanita. Not yet. We must have proof. We must know for certain. Anything less and I will carry the doubt with me to my grave.”

XIV

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Later that night, Calpurnia bedded down in her father's cot. Marjanita had wished to remain in the chamber with her, fearing more sinister intentions by the senator and his cohorts, but Calpurnia wished to be alone and ordered the overprotective handmaid to sleep in the antechamber just beyond the screen.

It was a peaceful moment after a long day that had begun with her father’s funeral and had ended with the raucous dinner. The wind whipped the flap drawn across the window. The toll of the distant ships' bells signaled the changing of the night watch. Feet padded dully on the deck outside. Sailors, crowded around fires, conversed in muffled voices. All of these things, with the gentle roll of the harbor swell, sent her into a deep sleep. She dreamed of the days when she was but a girl, and her father was rising in the cursus honorum. She played with her brothers, Drusus and Quintus, on the grounds of the family's country villa just outside of Rome. There was much laughing. Smiles crossed the faces of her parents as they watched from the veranda, smiles she had not seen in many years. Then, they were playing a game of hide-and-go-seek. Drusus and Quintus were hiding from her. She searched the grounds, inspecting every nook of the house, behind every cypress tree, behind every column, but she could not find them. As she continued to search, she began to realize that she was completely alone. Her parents were gone from the veranda, and no one was around – no slaves, no attendants, no one! She went into the house, but it, too, was deserted. Then, suddenly, the house began to crumble before her eyes, as if rocked by an earthquake. It shook and dissolved around her, and she felt as though she would be crushed at any moment. But then, a giant arm suddenly scooped her up, and carried her outside to safety. Soon, the house was nothing more than heaps of brick and shattered columns. As the dust settled, she saw a solitary figure standing amidst the ruins in a shaft of sunlight. It was not her father, or her brothers, but she somehow knew this was the man who had saved her. He was a warrior unlike any she had ever seen at that point in her young life, a horseman of the east, squat and compact, built with powerful, long arms in which he held a strung bow with exquisite, recurved tips. His windblown, shoulder-length hair brushed past his eyes as he looked down upon her. The eyes were not hateful, nor compassionate, but were somehow all-knowing, and she felt as though the mysterious warrior understood every emotion she was feeling at that moment, like no one in her life ever had.

It was a dream she had had many times before, and from which she always awoke most disturbed. She woke now, breathing heavily as she collected her bearings. It took her a few moments to remember where she was. The dark room was suddenly much colder, and she realized that the leather flap that had been secured across the window now flailed freely in the wind allowing a faint shaft of moonlight to filter through. She froze and listened intently. She could hear the quiet voices of two sailors chatting casually outside. She heard another man relieving himself into the harbor, but nothing was out of the ordinary. Not moving from the bed, she began to scan the room, methodically identifying every object. The table, the chests, the brace of armor, the cage – all were in their proper places, but something was not right. She was overwhelmed by the sudden feeling that there was another presence in the room, and that it had been this unseen presence, not the violent end of her dream, that had awoken her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something move – a shadow that quickly merged with other shadows. Her ears detected a noise that she had earlier dismissed as the wind, a labored breathing, as though the air was being drawn through a collapsed lung. It was faint, but it was there, and her body went icy still with fright.

Could it be her handmaid? No, Marjanita knew better than to disturb her unannounced. Perhaps it was an assassin, sent by Postumus. Or, perhaps the evil spirit that had tormented her father's soul still lingered in this room.

She waited for what seemed an eternity, and had almost convinced herself that her imagination was getting the best of her, when the shadow suddenly moved again. A putrid aroma filled her nostrils as she came to the realization that this was not some apparition. The outline of a hair-covered beast took shape before her bed. A single, wild eye illuminated by the moonlight looked directly into hers. She started to scream, but the creature flashed into motion, bounding the few paces that separated them before she could get out any more than a muffled cry. In an instant, her mouth was compressed by a giant, leathery hand, the foul-smelling fingers and calloused palm preventing her from making any further sounds. Then the creature’s terrifying features were suddenly before her face. The loose withered skin of an empty eye socket, the black and yellow teeth protruding at an odd angle from the small mouth, the flat nose speckled with wiry black hairs, hovered above her for several long moments like something summoned from her deepest nightmares, and though she recognized the face and knew full well this was no demon nor a dream, her heart still pounded with terror. The one wild eye stared into hers. There was an intelligence in that eye, an understanding and awareness that seemed out of place when taken with the other frightening features. The look stirred a memory from years past, a memory that made her want to stop resisting, but her instincts told her she was in danger, that the same hands that restrained her now had killed before, and that no matter how searching and pleading the solitary eye might appear, she must resist it with all of her might.

The strength had quite left her limbs, but still she struggled to break free. She knew that her assailant’s genitals had been long removed, but a swift thrust of her knee to that region still made him loosen his grip long enough for her to tear her mouth free and let out a cry for help.

She fully expected to be struck for that act of defiance, but the blow never came. Instead, she felt the weight removed from her cot, and heard her attacker thump off across the room as an ape uses its long arms to drag its body behind it.

There were voices outside. Men were rushing to her aid. She tried to discern her attacker’s shadow from the others in the room, but she had quite lost sight of it. Nothing moved. All was it had been before when Marjanita burst into the room with her long dagger in her hand, followed soon after by two marine guards bearing lanterns and drawn swords.

"Are you injured, my lady?" Marjanita said, rushing to her side.

Calpurnia shook her head. She still trembled with shock and could not speak.

The marines began to study the surroundings, checking warily in each dark corner for the source of her alarm.

"There is nothing here, ma'am," one of the marines reported.

"What happened, my lady?" Marjanita pleaded. “What made you cry out so?"

Calpurnia waved her away and forced herself to bring her breathing under control. She slowly rose to her feet and scanned around the room as she slowly collected herself. She knew her attacker. It had been Odulph, of course. He had somehow entered the cabin after she had gone to bed, but now, there was no trace of him anywhere. He was gone.

"My lady Calpurnia," Captain Naevius said, entering the room clad in only a tunic and holding a pugio dagger. "My men reported that you were in distress. Are you hurt, ma'am? What has happened?"

Calpurnia eyed the open window where the leather curtain flapped in the breeze. Surely, Odulph had used it to escape, and perhaps to enter as well, but now she was beginning to wonder at his true intentions. If he had wished to kill her, he certainly could have done that while she slept.

"Nothing has happened, captain," she replied, after taking a deep breath. "A nightmare, nothing more. My apologies for disturbing you and your men. I am quite recovered, now, thank you."

Naevius looked at her doubtfully. He had followed her eyes when they had glanced at the window, and now he marched swiftly across the room to examine it.

"I said I am quite fine, captain," she stated in an effort to stop him, but he was already at the window, holding his dagger at the ready and motioning the marines to him.

Calpurnia choked back a protest as Naevius thrust the dagger out the opening and downward in a motion that would certainly strike anyone who might be hanging onto the rail just outside, but his blade met with no obstruction. He then poked his head outside and scanned all around the dark world beyond. Apparently satisfied that nothing was there, he waved at the guards to stand down.

Calpurnia hid her relief as he faced her.

"I do not suppose you will accept a guard posted in your room to ward off any further nightmares, my lady.”

"Your concern warms my heart, captain, but I will be fine. Please leave me now, that I may go back to sleep."

With a somewhat annoyed glance, Naevius led the marines out of the room. Calpurnia held a finger to her lips before Marjanita could barrage her with questions. The handmaid reluctantly complied, remaining silent.

After waiting a suitable amount of time, in which Calpurnia fully expected Naevius to return unannounced under some pretense, she crossed to the window and leaned out over the edge. The black water rippled three decks below. It was not an easy climb, even for one with two full legs, but somehow Odulph had done it.

Where had he come from? Had he managed to remain unseen all these days since her father’s death? Obviously, the ship's company was not wise to his presence. But why had he attacked her? Was it an attack? There was little doubt that he could have crushed the life out of her, had he wished to. Now that the initial shock was over, she could see things more clearly. Though in a panic when the creature was hovering over her, she remembered now that the pressure of his hand on her face had been restrained. Perhaps this visitation had been an attempt to communicate with her, to convey some message regarding her father's death.

Odulph was not a mindless animal as many surmised. She knew this for a fact. Few others, if any, shared her knowledge. Even her own father had not known Odulph as she knew him. In many ways Calpurnia felt a strange sort of bond with Odulph, for what was she if not a creature in a cage? Her cage was perfumes, lips painted to a cherry red, and gold-stranded dresses cut to accentuate her breasts and hips. As Odulph was the augury for her father, she exemplified the same to her contending suitors, the countless gentlemen of Rome who endeavored to find fortune and divine blessings by securing her hand in marriage. Much like her father had treated Odulph, the well-bred gentlemen tossed her gifts or delicacies as rewards for her obedience.

And there were other reasons that she felt a bond with Odulph, as well. Her plans, her entire reason for coming aboard the Argonaut  had now taken an unexpected turn.

“Odulph is alive,” she whispered to Marjanita. “He was in this room when I woke.”

“What, my lady? The creature?”

“He is not a creature!” Calpurnia snapped. “He is quite probably the only one who witnessed my father’s murder. I believe he was trying to communicate with me, but my fear got the better of me.”

“He would have killed you, my lady.”

“No. I do not believe that. I know him, Marjanita. There is an understanding between us. He will not harm me. He is somewhere on this ship, and I believe he will try to contact me again.”

“If he does, my lady, he will receive my blade through his animal gullet.”

“You will do no such thing! Do you hear? You are not to harm him in any way.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“With Senator Postumus aboard, and now this, it is clear to me what I must do.”

Marjanita looked at her apprehensively. “This ship holds great danger for you, my lady.”

Calpurnia smiled appreciatively. “I will remain aboard this ship when it sails, Marjanita. Tomorrow morning, you will go ashore and fetch Cora and Lila and the rest of my baggage and personal things. But before you do that, I have another task for you.”

“Captain Naevius will never allow you to remain aboard, my lady.”

“Leave Naevius to me. Just do as I say, and be sure that you are back aboard by midday.”

XV

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The fleet sailed under oars and canvas, sixty bows dashing the seas into white spray across a blue expanse. The sun had driven any clouds from the sky, and nearly every ship ran unhindered. The Greek coast had just fallen over the eastern horizon and now an infinite sea stretched in all directions.

“It is not right, Admiral! Simply not right!” Naevius protested at Libo’s shoulder for the fourth time since the fleet had gotten underway earlier that day. Both men stood on the stern deck of the bounding Argonaut  somewhere in the center of the formation. “She should not have your quarters, sir. She should not even be here! You are the admiral of this fleet. I care not who her father was. The stern cabin on the flagship belongs to the admiral. It is clearly stated in the code of naval discipline.”

“As I told you before, Captain, she is our guest,” Libo sighed at having to repeat it again. “She will be put ashore at the first convenient opportunity.”

“But it is improper, sir. It sends the wrong message to the crew. They wonder if the dead admiral still commands this fleet through the person of his daughter.”

Libo could hear the challenge in his voice, and perhaps some resentment. Naevius had spent the last several hours overloading the him with reports of the fleet’s many shortages, of the reduced manning on the oars, of the meager number of men pressed into service, of the few stores pilfered from the harbor warehouses – each report more dire than the last. All throughout, Naevius had addressed him in a somewhat pejorative tone, as if all of these problems were now his to bear and Naevius had little confidence in his ability to fix them. Above all of these more essential concerns, Naevius had elevated the issue of Lady Calpurnia.

“Her presence here is inappropriate, my lord,” Naevius said again.

“It will be a minor inconvenience, captain,” Libo replied, this time not hiding his own annoyance. “One I am sure you can overcome. I would recommend you spend more time seeing to your duties and less pondering the comings and goings of Lady Calpurnia.”

Libo smiled inwardly as the flag captain moved on, venting his anger on a pair of nearby sailors fumbling with a knotted sheet. Libo knew the real reason Na


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evius wanted Lady Calpurnia gone, and it had little to do with naval tradition. Aside from the admiral’s cabin, there were only two staterooms on the crowded Argonaut . They were more like large lockers, but they were private quarters nonetheless. With Senator Postumus occupying the one normally used by the captain of marines, Libo had moved into the other one, the one normally occupied by the flag captain, forcing Naevius to berth with the rest of the officers. This evidently did not sit well with Naevius. Libo sighed at the thought that he would have to deal with the flag captain on a daily basis, another of the many displeasures that came with his new position.

Libo had arrived in Corcyra earlier that morning at the head of his battered, but victorious squadrons, and had received a spirited ovation from every anchored ship they passed. As expected, he had reported aboard the flagship and had been met at the gangway by Senator Postumus and the smartly turned out ship’s company. The ceremony had been brief, the smiling senator adorning him with the badge of office, the admiral’s baton, and a laurel for his most recent victory against the Rhodians. But no sooner had the ceremony concluded than polished breastplates and helmets disappeared to be replaced by drab sea cloaks, and all preparations made for getting underway.

Now, as Libo looked out at the cruising fleet, making mental notes of which ships had trouble keeping station, the Argonaut’s  officers stood apart from him, all clustered by the weather rail. They were all Naevius’s men, and that was unfortunate. Libo was at the pinnacle of his career, in command of the entire fleet, but he felt more isolated now than ever. He wished direfully that among the mass of ships dotting the seas around him, he might catch sight of the Remus,  or the Aurora,  or the Pluto , but they were not there. It was perhaps the bitterest moment of the day, when Senator Postumus had informed him that Aquila Squadron – Libo’s old squadron – was to be detached from the fleet and sent back to eastern waters to quell the pirate menace that had sprung up there.

Of course, it was all hogwash. The Senate was simply exercising its power over the new admiral, letting him know that they were in ultimate control, depriving him of his old cadre of loyal captains to limit his influence over the fleet. Libo still smarted from the line in his appointment letter, stating that he was not to bring any officers with him from the Remus , as was the traditional right of any newly appointed commander. For Libo certainly would have replaced a few officers, starting with the flag captain.

But there were also others aboard, aside from Naevius, whom Libo would have preferred to leave in Corcyra.

“Your orders are clear, are they not, Admiral?” Postumus had said shortly after the ceremony that morning, as Libo had perused the document bearing his official sailing orders.

“I am to take the fleet to Brundisium and blockade the harbor there,” Libo summarized what he had just read.

“Precisely. And it is imperative that you sail without delay. There is no telling when Antony might attempt another crossing. We must be off Brundisium within three days.”

“We, Senator?” Libo had asked surprised.

“My adjutant and I will be accompanying you on this voyage, Admiral,” Postumus said candidly.

“Does the Senate distrust me so much that first they deprive me of my squadron and now I am to have minders aboard?”

Libo instantly wished he had not made such a bold, unabashed pronouncement of his thoughts, but Postumus did not seem to take any notice of his frustration.

“Of course the Senate trusts you, my dear Libo,” Postumus said, smiling. “You would not have been given this command otherwise. Suffice it to say that I am on official business of the Senate, and my mission is critical to the future of the republic. Have no fear. You will be informed of all you need to know as the need arises. For now, your current orders are adequate. You must take this fleet, and me, to Brundisium.”

Libo considered pointing out the fact that, while the document in his hand did direct him to blockade Brundisium, it said nothing about taking the senator along. “So, I am to be kept in the dark. Is that it, Senator? Is this the kind of treatment Admiral Bibulus received?”

“Please do not construe this minor inconvenience as a personal insult to you, Admiral. I assure you, you will be given all consideration due your rank and title in matters concerning the fleet. My mission is of much grander scope and purpose. As to your predecessor, Jupiter bless him, his was a different circumstance entirely. Let’s just say Bibulus tended to have a mind of his own.”

“As do I, Senator.”

“But yours is not a mind gone mad, Libo. You would not exercise your own will to the point of disobeying orders. At least, I sincerely hope not. Your predecessor ignored the Senate, as if these ships and men were his personal toys to be thrown from one end of the sea to another to satisfy his wild whims.” Postumus then looked once around the deck as if looking for someone before adding, “And while we are on the subject of Bibulus, I wish to implore you, Admiral, to send Lady Calpurnia ashore before we sail. The poor child is obviously grief-stricken over the death of her father, but accommodations for the grieving can only go so far. She has no business aboard a ship of war sailing to confront the enemy.”

“I cannot, Senator,” Libo had replied frankly. “I have already promised Lady Calpurnia a passage to Italy.”

“You promised her what?” Postumus had seemed aghast. “But how can that be? You have only just come aboard. I was the first to greet you and I have not left your side for a moment. I believe the Lady Calpurnia has not yet even roused from her bed. How in Juno’s name could you have spoken with her?”

“We did not speak, Senator. A launch met my squadron at the mouth of the harbor this morning as we were pulling in. One of Lady Calpurnia’s servants, a young eastern woman, came aboard the Remus  and delivered a letter addressed to me. In it, Lady Calpurnia stated that, with her father now dead, she wishes to tie up some family business in Rome and visit with her solicitors to see that the family estate is properly distributed. The tyrant has not stooped to waging war on the families of his enemies, at least not yet, so I judged it a reasonable request. I sent my reply back with the messenger.” After seeing the senator’s disconcerted expression, Libo roguishly added, “Certainly, this will not interfere with your mission, will it, Senator? The fleet’s business shall come first, of course. Lady Calpurnia will only be sent ashore when the opportunity allows, and then in some protected cove where the enemy cannot interfere.”

The senator had not been pleased, but there was little he could do about it. The fact that Calpurnia’s presence appeared to bother him to such an extent left Libo puzzled. What animosity could the old man possibly have for the poor, young woman, no matter his opinion of her late father?

As to Postumus’s mission, no further explanation had been given, and Libo had chosen not to press the matter. Libo sensed something in Postumus’s demeanor, something that told him the senator’s mission went beyond state business. Ever since the fleet had gotten underway, the senator seemed to have been continually engrossed in quiet discussions with his adjutant. These did not appear to be casual conversations either, but very animated, as if the two were planning some intricate campaign that hung on a thread.

Libo planned to keep an eye on both of them.

Now, he gazed down at the main deck past a crew of marine artillerymen concluding an exercise of the amidships heavy ballista. Lady Calpurnia and her handmaid strolled nearby, watching with much interest as the muscled marines secured the engine’s canvas covering. Her face carried a somber expression, and Libo could only imagine how she must feel walking the decks where her father had walked in his final days.

In all of the bustle involved with getting the fleet to sea that morning, he had only managed to speak with her briefly. He had expressed his condolences, assured her that she was welcome aboard the Argonaut  as long as she wished to stay, and that he hoped to make her journey to Italy as quick and as uneventful as possible.

“Thank you, Admiral,” Calpurnia had replied endearingly. “My father always thought highly of you. Were he still alive, I know that he would have considered his daughter in good hands.” She had then averted her eyes before asking, “You will not be bothered, Admiral, if I wander throughout the ship from time to time? These decks and bulwarks seem familiar to me. They remind me of how much my father cherished this vessel.”

“Not at all, my lady. Please go wherever you wish. If there is anything I or my officers can do to make your trip more comfortable, please do not hesitate to tell us.”

Poor child, Libo thought, remembering how she had left him looking like a wayward dove. She had suffered much in this struggle to save the republic. Now she was alone in the world, with no one to care for her but that handmaid and the pair of female slaves that had come aboard with her baggage. She was to be smuggled into Italy, a most inglorious way for the daughter of a former consul, governor, and admiral to return to her homeland.

Libo thought of his own family, and how his own daughter might have to return to Rome in such a manner, should this fleet not keep Antony’s legions locked in Italy long enough for Pompey to deal with Caesar.

Perhaps it would not take that long. Before the fleet had put to sea that morning, welcome news had reached Corcyra that Pompey’s army was finally on the move. Pompey and Caesar had spent weeks staring at each other across the Apsus River, neither one making a move. While Caesar had watched his own troops dwindle from disease and desertion, across the river, Pompey’s army grew stronger every day. Pompey had assembled nine legions, all at or near full strength, along with a horde of fresh auxiliary and mercenary cohorts arriving from the eastern provinces – some forty thousand men in all. Outnumbered nearly three to one, and not wishing to find himself trapped against the sea, Caesar had left his positions on the south side of the Apsus. He had marched his legions inland, abandoning the coastal plain where he could be easily outflanked for the rocky hills and deep ravines of the interior. Pompey’s army was now in full pursuit, moving to confront the tyrant and bring him to battle.

Within a few days, Libo thought, the war might be decided. The gods allowing, the tyrant would be slain and the republic secure once again. And then, at last, they could all return home.

XVI

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The bridge over the rocky ravine had been hastily built by Caesar’s engineers, a patchwork of timbers that had turned an insurmountable gorge into a passage for his legions as they made their way into the heart of Illyricum. Caesar’s army had begun crossing over the creaking structure at the first light of dawn, and only now, in the late afternoon, were the last carts and mules of the baggage train finally trundling across.

Although the bridge had only been erected on the previous day, its use was now finished, and the same engineers who had so swiftly and meticulously built it, now began tearing it down so that the enemy might not benefit from its use.

“That’s the last of them, General,” Publius Cornelius Sulla, the legate of the Tenth Legion, commented from his mount as he and Caesar observed from a nearby hill. The tail end of the baggage train had exited the bridge and now followed the ambling cloud of dust left by the army as it made its way along the winding road into the hills to the north. “All of our men are across, and none too soon. It appears we are but one step ahead of Pompey.”

The legate pointed to the hills beyond the opposite side of the bridge, where another cloud of dust hung in the sky. Both men knew that beneath that cloud a massive host came on at the forced march – nine legions, with the standards of Pompey at their head.

“They cannot be more than ten miles away, General,” Publius commented. “They have gained a day on us, at least.”

“The same obstacle that slowed us will slow them, Publius,” Caesar replied casually.

At that moment, a mud-covered officer approached Caesar and saluted. He was a centurion of the engineer cohort now dismantling the bridge, and he was out of breath from climbing up the hill from the ravine.

“The work is slow-going, General,” he reported. He was helmetless and had the look of exhaustion, as did his men. They had repaired the bridge three separate times that day, after portions of it had given way, sending several legionaries and several teams of mules to their deaths in the rocky crevasse below. “It will be well after sundown before we finish. Even then, sir, I doubt we can salvage all of it.”

“You are the primus pila of the engineer cohort, are you not?” Caesar said, more like an accusation than a question.

“Yes, General,” the tired man replied, standing up a little straighter at Caesar’s unsympathetic tone.

“Who is the second centurion in line?”

“Centurion Tertius Volcula, General.”

“Then you shall carry a message to Centurion Volcula. Tell him he is now primus pila, and he is to disassemble and pack that bridge before the last light leaves the western sky.”

The deflated centurion stared up at Caesar in disbelief, open-mouthed and unmoving.

“If you are as poor at relaying orders as you are at building bridges,” Caesar said contemptuously after seeing that the man did not move. “Then I can certainly have one of my orderlies deliver the message.”

“No, sir,” the centurion said quickly, snapping out of his trance and saluting again. “I shall carry the orders to Centurion Volcula without delay.”

As the demoted officer struck off down the hill, Publius ventured to speak to the perturbed Caesar. “I would say he was a bit stunned by that rebuke, sir.”

“What?” Caesar said looking up from a message that had been placed in his hands by an orderly. “It concerns me little, Publius.”

“You did, by chance, see those medallions on his chest, Caesar? That man has fought in many battles. Indeed, I recognized some of those medals from your campaigns in Gaul and Britannia. It is quite possible that centurion has served under you for many years. Perhaps this injury to his honor is -”

“Damn his pride, man!” Caesar snapped. “He’ll do what I bid him and there’s the end of it!”

Publius paused. He knew that Caesar was on edge. Of late, the normally unflappable general had been irritable and prone to such outbursts. And who could expect otherwise, with men grumbling in the marching columns, and officers grumbling around the campfires, that Caesar had blundered by landing them on this foreign shore? What had he expected to accomplish with only half of his army? Had he not foreseen the massing of the Pompeiian legions, stirred from their winter quarters throughout Epirus and Illyricum? The cloud of dust dogging Caesar’s army grew larger with each passing day. Pompey’s army was strong, and well supplied from both land and sea. Caesar’s troops, on the other hand, could hope for no help from the sea, and had only to rely on the feigned love of the local magistrates in the towns they encountered for subsistence. Publius had even overheard some of the veteran centurions grumbling that Caesar had pushed Fortuna’s favor too far this time.

Publius crafted his next words carefully. “I only wish to point out, General, that this man is undoubtedly a man of much valor. This army needs his sword. I have known some centurions, after such a reprobation, to instantly retire to their tents and commit suicide. I have seen some do it for lesser disparages.”

“The man cannot build a bridge worth the urine in his pisspot, Publius. Jupiter knows, we have enough incompetent fools in this army. We have enough difficulties keeping the men on the march as it is. After today, how many do you think would willfully set foot on a bridge built by that imbecile? We’d have to goad them at the tip of the spear.”

“I do see your point, sir. Still -”

“Forget honor, Publius. Forget swordsmen. What concerns me more are those materials down there. This damnable country is so devoid of timber I doubt we could craft another bridge should we encounter a similar obstacle. We must salvage as much as possible.”

Caesar had obviously moved on to a different matter, and Publius decided to abandon the unfortunate centurion of engineers to his fate. Down the hill, near the edge of the gorge, a long line of one hundred carts waited impatiently as pulleys and cranes methodically hauled the bridge materials up from the gorge. As soon as one cart was loaded to capacity, its drivers whipped the team down the path, and another cart took its place.

Publius glanced at the southern horizon, beyond the ravine. A handful of mounted figures had appeared along the distant ridgeline several hours ago, observing the activities at the bridge, but now there were more. Now, as Publius watched, the cluster of horsemen filling the road began to grow in number until Publius could make out a large formation of lance-wielding riders, driving their horses at a strong gallop towards the bridge. They were Pompey’s advance guard, Galatian and Cappadocian cavalry – picked horsemen from the heart of Asia Minor – whom had sworn allegiance to the exiled Senate and to Pompey. They came on now with great swiftness. Several engineers and slaves were still working on the far side of the bridge, a few planks had been left across the main struts of the framework, allowing them to move back and forth between sides. They continued their work unaware of the approaching danger. A low hill just beyond the bridge hid the closing horsemen from their field of view.

Publius waited as several of the staff officers behind him began to murmur to one another in silent alarm. Certainly Caesar had seen the danger, too, and Publius felt it was not necessary to point it out to the consul. But he noticed that Caesar had become transfixed by the letter in his hands, his face drawing more grave the more he read. Caesar seemed completely absorbed by the letter’s contents, and, if Publius’s eyes did not deceive him, the briefest moment of panic crossed the consul’s face.

“Archers to the front!” Publius gave the order to one of the tribunes behind him. The armored officer saluted and galloped off in a stir of dust.

The Tenth was assigned the rear guard, and were commissioned with the protection of the long train of impedimenta following behind Caesar’s army. Publius had four cohorts drawn up on this side of the bridge – nearly two thousand spears. He chose to keep these in place, for those few planks left on the bridge were too narrow to support cavalry, and the ravine was far too deep and far too wide for the enemy horse to get across otherwise. Those engineers working on the south side of the bridge, however, were in great peril. An auxiliary cohort of Cretan archers was attached to the Tenth, and it was these men, with bows strung, that now took up positions along the steep defile on the north side of the gorge. The archers would cover the inevitable retreat of the engineers – if Caesar ever gave the order.

But the distracted consul kept his eyes transfixed on the message, as if staring at it longer might lead him to the solution of whatever problem lay therein.

“Do you know what this letter contains, Publius?”

“I do not, Caesar,” Publius responded, keeping his eyes on the rapidly closing enemy horse. “Begging your pardon, sir, but the enemy cavalry is less than a mile away. Would it not be prudent to pull the engineers -”

“It is from that hesitant of all hesitants, Marc Antony,” Caesar interrupted, “whom, until recently, I believed to be a somewhat competent general and colleague. He writes, I await temperate weather and am desperately short of transports . That fool sits in Brundisium with our remaining legions, watching the sea, and no doubt the bottom of his goblet!” Caesar slapped the page with the back of his hand. “In this, he goes on in great detail to tell me that he believes the crossing to be too hazardous to attempt in the winter, and that he will make every effort to reach me in the spring! The spring, Publius! Does the fool not realize, I need more than just his legions? He is supposed to bring across the bloody treasury reserves. If we don’t have them soon, this army will mutiny before it ever sees battle. Doesn’t he understand that? The spring! Did you ever hear something so outrageous, Publius?”

“No, Caesar.”

A great shout of alarm echoed from the far bank as the thunder of the horse reached the ears of the working engineers. At nearly the same moment, the surging line of steaming snouts and twinkling bronze armor crested the last hill and were now visible to those still working on the south side of the bridge. Publius saw several centurions there look up at the approaching enemy and then back to the hill where Caesar and Publius sat, as if willing the consul to order the withdrawal. But when no such order came, the veteran field officers ordered their work parties to fetch their stacked arms and began forming a defensive line in the enemy’s path. Seeing this, the Galatian cavalry leveled lances and kicked their mounts into full stride. A horn sounded, and the enemy formation quickly lost its shape as every horse was pushed to its limit. Several slaves screamed in horror at the approaching fury and chose to leap to their deaths rather than face the enemy lances.

Publius looked from the enemy to Caesar, aghast that the consul still kept his eyes glued to the letter.

“Not to dismiss Antony’s sluggishness, Caesar,” Publius ventured, “but do you not think we should address the more immediate matters that require our attention?”

“What?” Caesar looked up and glanced across the ravine, seemingly seeing the enemy for the first time.

“The engineers, sir. They are in great peril. They await your order to withdraw.”

“Well, of course, they should be withdrawn,” Caesar answered as if he was surprised it had not yet been done. “What are you waiting for, man?”

“But you wished the bridge to be salvaged, sir – ”

“Does your hand need holding, too, Publius, as it seems Antony’s does? Get the men out of there!”

“Yes, General.”

Publius barked orders to his tribunes and then watched with suppressed irritation as they rode up and down the north bank shouting for the engineers on the south side to abandon the bridge and hasten back across. But it was too late. The shouting centurions had already formed the engineers into an orbis as was expected when hopelessly outnumbered, the last ditch circular formation bristled with outward pointing spears. It was often the last terrifying thing a charging horseman beheld before the angled pila impaled his horse and he found himself flying into the rear ranks to be savaged by a dozen waiting gladii. Several of the Galatian and Cappadocian riders met this fate as the lead squadrons crashed into the formation with a clap like that of thunder. The beasts whinnied as they were driven onto the planted pila, but several horses broke through the line and, with blazing eyes and stomping hoofs, began spinning wildly inside the Roman ranks, crushing ribs, limbs and skulls in their paths. One rider threw a javelin at an unseen man beneath, and then began slashing wildly with a curved sword. Two bloody hands grasped this rider’s leg and yanked him off of his mount, pulling him down into the fray where he was lost from view. Another Galatian cried in alarm as a legionary climbed onto his mount behind him, wrapped one arm around the horseman’s neck, and brutally wrenched him from the saddle. The Galatian fell kicking amongst the stabbing gladii below. Other legionaries fought bravely, and bravely met their ends transfixed by the deadly lances.

As the orbis was slowly torn apart and lost from view by the swirl of horsemen, one centurion, helmetless and separated from the rest, stood poised with a bloody pilum, fending off one horseman after another. With every thrust that felled an enemy rider, he let out a lusty “Hail, Caesar!” At every pause in the attacks arrayed against him, he turned to face across the gorge, staring up at the hill upon which Caesar and his staff sat, and again shouted out “Hail, Caesar!” The words were distinct and clear above the din of the melee.

What madness! Publius thought. Then, it suddenly occurred to him that the battle-crazed centurion was none other than the man Caesar had demoted only moments ago. The centurion was berserk now, blood streaming from his temples, a cluster of twitching bodies at his feet, and no other Roman anywhere nearby that could possibly come to his aid. He was doomed, yet even now, his last devotion was to Caesar, or so it appeared. Perhaps the madness of battle had simply overcome him. Either way, Publius marveled at the influence the master politician turned general had over the rank and file. Even those who had reason to hate him, in the end, would go to their deaths to please him.

It was not long before the centurion’s fortune ran out. From all sides, more leveled lances closed in. When one of the centurion’s parries missed a thrusting shaft, the unfettered lance tip buried itself deep within his exposed neck. A sudden crimson spout dressed the manes of the nearby horses, and the centurion fell dead without another sound.

The entire staff had watched the centurion’s final moments, and many commented to one another on his gallantry. Publius himself was quite shaken by it. He turned to Caesar, expecting the consul to be equally as moved, but Caesar had already turned his attention back to the letter.

“Damn, Antony!” Caesar said. “If my army was not afoot in two lands separated by fifty miles of boiling seas, what I wouldn’t do to Pompey!”

“Pompey comes on brazenly, General,” Publius replied half-heartedly, still thinking of the centurion. “He hounds our heels at every turn. It seems he does not fear us.”

“He does not fear us, Publius, because he outnumbers us. Pompey is a wise old soldier. As archaic as his battle tactics tend to be, he is a fair strategist. He knows I cannot feed my army in this land. He has seen to it that the countryside was scoured to deprive me of forage. Now, he forces me away from the sea, my only source of reinforcement.”

“The map shows that we will encounter a river on this road, Caesar. Without materials to build a proper bridge, we will have no choice but to fight.”

“Wrong, Publius,” Caesar said in a lighthearted tone. “There is another option. We can simply float down the river back to the sea and bid the men swim for Italy.”

A cheer rang out from the far side of the bridge. Bloody lances were held aloft as the horsemen celebrated the massacre. All of the engineers and slaves had fallen. Now, with no Roman left alive on the south bank, the Cretan archers on the north bank stepped up and threw back their cloaks to reveal quivers brimming with feathered shafts. As one man, they notched their arrows, and within moments, wave after wave of deadly missiles were sailing over the expanse and into the jumbled squadrons of reveling cavalry. The revelry turned to panic as riders began to fall, and injured horses began running frantically in every direction. Soon the mounted squadrons retreated back up the road, leaving several of their number behind.

“Pompey’s infantry will be up before nightfall,” Publius said. “I believe we can salvage no more, General.”

Caesar nodded, Publius issued orders, and the surviving engineers assembled to fire the remnants of the bridge.

“Pompey will not cross here,” Caesar said. “He will worry that we might try a quick march to Dyrrachium. He will move closer to the coast and shadow our movements, staying between us and the sea.” Caesar’s face then lost all expression as he stared at the burning bridge, as if a thought had suddenly crossed his mind.

“What is it, General?”

“Pompey will stay between us and the sea,” Caesar said distantly, staring at the fire for a few more moments before suddenly wheeling in the saddle to face Publius. “He will stay between us and the sea! That’s it, Publius!”

“I am not sure I understand, sir.”

“Hand me that map, Publius.” Caesar took the map and stretched it across the neck of his horse, hurriedly tracing out several lines with a bony finger. His face lit up with joy when he found whatever it was he was looking for. “Yes, yes, of course! Why didn’t I think of it before?”

“Think of what, my lord?”

“We need Antony, Publius,” Caesar said vigorously, ignoring the question. “Damn him for his timidity, but we need him now! I must go to Italy at once. I will ride for the coast tonight. I’ll find something to get me across – a fishing boat, a skiff, anything that floats, for Jupiter’s sake – but I will get across!”

“Please, Caesar,” Publius pleaded. “That is ma


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dness. Even if you could avoid Pompey’s patrols and reach the coast, the seas are too treacherous this time of year. We cannot risk you. Not to mention what the men might do, should they hear you’ve gone back to Italy.”

“Antony’s message reached us here without problem,” Caesar said optimistically. “Why should it not be the same with me? It will only be for two or three days at the most, Publius.”

“I think I speak for the rest of the legates, Caesar, when I say we cannot allow it for fear of your safety.” Publius exchanged glances with Caesar and saw that the consul comprehended his true fear, which was the prospect that Caesar might choose to remain in Italy and abandon the army. “There must be an alternative solution, my lord.”

“Not likely, Publius. Antony has spurned all of my previous summons. Perhaps he will obey, if I interrupt his debauchery in person.”

“There has to be another way, sir. Perhaps we could send another. One of the tribunes? A young gentleman would have a much better chance of getting through unnoticed.”

“Perhaps you are right, Publius.” Caesar sighed and watched as the bridge began to collapse in a shower of sparks. He then looked at the map, and said again, “Perhaps you are right.”

XVII

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The fleet cruised quietly across the moonlit Adriatic. It was the second night at sea after leaving Corcyra. Aboard the Argonaut , Senator Postumus sat on a chair in his stateroom dictating a letter to Flavius who sat at a small desk lit by a single lamp. They were interrupted by one of the senator’s bodyguards who knocked on the door and announced that Postumus had a visitor.

"Why are you here?" Postumus said, as Barca crept into the cabin, appearing somewhat nervous.

The paunchy overseer did not answer, at first, but scanned the small cabin, as if to see if someone else might be there, hiding in the shadows.

“You may speak, man,” Postumus said, somewhat annoyed at the oaf’s anxiety. “There is no one here but the three of us. I would not have admitted you otherwise. Are you here to tell me that you have finally completed the task I asked of you? Is the centurion food for the sharks?”

“Forgive me, Excellency,” Barca replied humbly. “But the senator bad me do two things.”

“Did I now?”

“Yes, Excellency.”

“Well?” Postumus grew annoyed. “Have you completed both, or one, or none?”

“My lord asked me to do away with a former centurion, a man who now pulls an oar for this ship. Sadly, my lord, I have not yet accomplished this task. I have gone to great lengths to provoke him, but he is an obedient slave.”

“You are the chief overseer, man! I hardly think you need a reason to whip a slave to death. If you can’t incite him to strike you, then simply concoct some false reason to have him killed. I’m sure you know how to be rid of a slave that displeases you.”

“It is difficult, Excellency.”

Postumus eyed him. “Meaning, you want more money.”

Barca smiled meekly and shrugged. “But this is not the reason I have come to you tonight, Excellency. I come to report on the other task the senator has given me. I was to monitor the comings and goings of a certain female passenger, the Lady Calpurnia.”

"Yes,” Postumus sighed. “I asked you to keep your eyes open. What of her?"

“For the past two nights, at the changing of the watch, the lady has exhibited an odd behavior. She has descended into the hold and has remained there for nearly an hour before returning to her quarters. She has been alone on both occasions, leaving her handmaid in the stern cabin. On both occasions, no one has followed her into the hold, nor has anyone emerged after she has left. It is most curious, Excellency, and I thought the senator would wish to know of it.”

Postumus exchanged puzzled looks with Flavius.

“That is most curious,” Flavius said intriguingly. “You say no one else was in the hold with her during these times?”

Barca smiled, exposing his crooked teeth. “None of the lads will go down there, these days, my lord, lest they’ve got an armed guard with them.”

“Why is that?”

“They believe the lower deck is haunted, my lord. There have been some unexplained deaths down there, and it’s got men talking. They think it’s the ghost of old Admiral Bibulus come to collect his revenge.”

Flavius laughed out loud. “What a superstitious lot you sailors are.”

“If you say so, my lord.”

“Perhaps those superstitions will work to our advantage.”

“What are you thinking, Flavius?” Postumus asked, after seeing the calculating look on his adjutant’s face.

“I believe we may have an opportunity to eliminate all of our obstacles, Senator,” Flavius said. He then turned to Barca. “You say Lady Calpurnia does this every night, at the changing of the watch?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“So, it is likely she will visit the hold again tonight?”

“Very likely, my lord.”

“Then, tonight, you must do exactly as I say. You must take the centurion to the hold before the lady arrives. Shackle him and then leave. But before you leave, place the key to his shackles nearby, somewhere outside of his reach yet clearly visible. Is that understood?”

“Your instructions are clear, my lord.” Barca appeared hesitant. “It is just that…”

“What is it, man? Surely, you do not believe the hold is haunted?”

“No, my lord, it isn’t that. It’s just that the senator mentioned more money, and I thought perhaps -“

“You are a scoundrel, overseer,” Postumus interrupted, and then nodded to Flavius.

Flavius unlocked a chest and then produced a small bag which he tossed casually onto the table. The clinking of metal and the weighty sound lit a fire in the overseer’s eyes.

“Will that be sufficient?” Postumus asked. “There is more silver there than you might see in a year.”

“It is most generous, Excellency.” The overseer could not help but grin with delight.

“Then go,” Postumus said, dismissing him. “And be sure you do exactly as you have been told!”

“Yes, Excellency.”

“You wish it to appear as though the centurion attacked her?” Postumus asked Flavius, after the overseer had left the cabin.

“Precisely, my lord. I will take your guards with me. We shall use a dagger to kill the centurion, and then strangle the woman and leave the weapon in her hand.”

“Good. Once they are dead, we can finally clean up this mess Bibulus has made for us.” Postumus smiled.

“But, Senator, will not Admiral Libo suspect something?”

“He will, or he won’t. It makes no difference. I am convinced he knows nothing of this. When the bodies of Calpurnia and the centurion are discovered, he will certainly guess something is amiss, but you will arrange it such that the evidence speaks for itself.”

“And when we meet with Antony?” Flavius asked skeptically. “What will the admiral do then?”

“He will follow orders, like all good soldiers do,” Postumus replied assuredly. “He will do as I tell him, believing it is the will of the Senate.” Postumus then chuckled to himself as he took a sip of wine.

“What is it, Senator?”

“I was just thinking, Flavius, how ironic it all is. If all goes as planned, this half-baked scheme of Bibulus’s, which he undoubtedly envisioned would cause our ruin, might very well leave us in control of the entire empire.”

XVIII

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Calpurnia crept carefully in the darkness, listening and watching. She moved along a narrow walkway suspended above the black, knee-deep water sloshing in the bilge. Above her and all around her, the ship creaked with every tilt of the rocking hull. Stacked crates, casks, and amphorae were tightly lashed along both sides of the walkway. She was deep within the heart of the ship, where light did not penetrate, where the Argonaut  carried all of the stores necessary to keep a one hundred fifty foot, three-decked warship, and its seven hundred-man crew at sea for weeks on end. There was even a small pen where a dismal group of swine rooted in the dark, awaiting their turn on the butcher’s block.

The small lamp burned dimly in her hand, its light seemingly swallowed up by the black voids around her. More than once, she had been startled by the sudden appearance of a scurrying rat, whose wiry-haired shadow was amplified to ten times its normal size by a trick of the light.

She had no reason to be afraid, she kept telling herself. She had ventured down into the dark hold two nights in a row now, under the strident belief that rats were not the only inhabitants of this dank, seldom visited place. Somewhere, in the vast compartment that stretched off into the darkness before her – somewhere in one of the hundreds of cavernous chambers formed by the spine and ribs of the ship – she would find him. He had to be here. She was certain of it.

As she took each step, the conversation she had earlier with Marjanita resounded in her head.

“No. I will not allow it, my lady,” Marjanita had protested, just as she had on the past two nights. “It is too dangerous for you to go by yourself, my lady. I insist on going with you!”

“Are you forgetting your place, Marjanita?” Calpurnia had reprimanded her lightly.

“It is my place to protect you, my lady.”

“I will be fine. He will never reveal himself, if you are with me. Your brusque manner would surely frighten him off. I must find him. I must know the truth about my father’s death.”

“But he is a creature, my lady – little more than a beast of the field. His mind is gone. And I never liked the way he looked at you.” Marjanita appeared disgusted at the thought. “His eye is like that of a vulture.”

It finally came to the point of threatening to punish her before the nearly insubordinate Marjanita ceased her protests and allowed Calpurnia to leave. Calpurnia could not hold Marjanita responsible for her perception of Odulph, for she was like the others, who had only seen Odulph in his bestial form – an enraged, caged animal that hated the world, only showing allegiance to the master who owned and fed him. But Calpurnia knew a different man – yes, man – for that is what he once was. Deep inside, she knew the soul of the man was still there, capable of love, and of being loved.

No one, not even her father, knew that a relationship of sorts had developed between her and Odulph. Just as no one knew about those long months in Antioch with her brothers dead and her father slipping into insanity, how she starved for companionship, for someone that might relate to her suffering and loss. Living in the immense governor’s estate, amongst a people whose culture and customs were far removed from those of the Latins, even under the protection of the unreservedly loyal Marjanita, she had felt so utterly alone.

She had come upon him quite by accident, in the estate’s vast, stone-fenced garden, one bright spring morning. That place, with its dazzling colors, enchanting aromas, and soothing fountains had always been a place of tranquility for her. Her father had had the cage moved to the sunlit garden that day for some superstitious reason or other, and had left it there as state business took him away for several hours. She had been thinking of her brothers, as she walked amongst the colorful rows of red, gold, and lavender, as she did every morning, when she rounded a hedge and found the cage sitting in her path, and herself face-to-face with the twisted features that had repulsed so many. Odulph’s sudden appearance had startled her, but then she was surprised to see that he had been no less startled by her. She realized that she had interrupted his careful study of a vibrant pink rose that swayed in the breeze slightly more than an arm’s reach beyond the bars of the cage, and she somehow sensed that he was very sad.

It was at that precise moment that she knew there was a spark within him, a soul that carried the intellect to appreciate the fragile beauty of this world and not simply live for ravenous consumption of food and drink. For the rose, in all of its dew-speckled brilliance, was a simple message from the gods to mortal men who were destined to walk the earth in suffering. It was a fringe of the intricate perfection that was creation, a mere glimpse of the beauty that must abound in the afterlife.

Calpurnia had seen the suffering of a thousand slaves in her life. Many times, when slaves got out of line, she had been the source of that suffering. They were human beings, true, and she always considered herself fair, but she had never connected with any of them. For some reason, ever since that morning, when she and Odulph had sat quietly together for several long moments enjoying the beauty of the morning sun on the rose, she had felt a bond with him that was impossible to explain.

Perhaps it had happened at the right time, the one moment after her brothers’ deaths when she was vulnerable enough to let someone into her guarded world. Whatever the source of her feelings, she had next done the unthinkable. She had done what her father had commanded that no one but him ever do. She had approached the cage and had closed to within reach of Odulph’s massive arms. Oddly enough, it was the creature that had retreated, backing away to the other side of his small cell, unsure of her intentions. But when he saw her pick off the purple flower and pass it through the bars to him without the slightest inkling of fear, he returned and gently took it from her with one gnarled hand. She had made eye contact with him. She saw that one single sad eye gazing back at her and, in her mind’s eye, saw the form of the great Steppe warrior he had once been.

There were many such encounters after that, always when her father was away, and always in secret. On each occasion, she managed to tap the gentle spirit that had once inhabited the body of the perceived monster. She had learned to communicate with him, and though his cage was never placed in the garden again, she often stole into her father’s chamber in her father’s absence and placed a solitary flower in Odulph’s hand.

Was it pity? She did not know. Surely, had she felt enough pity, she might have done something to arrange the creature’s release. But, she loved her father, too, and she sensed Odulph also loved him. Her father was very protective of the object he referred to as his augury.

Now, as she searched Argonaut ’s foul-smelling hold, she knew Odulph would not harm her. If he indeed lived, then he was here, and he would come out to face her, and perhaps she might contrive from him how her father truly met his end.

A noise came from up ahead of her. It was not the sound of a scurrying rodent, and it was accompanied by the distant glow of a lantern. She heard voices, too, and metal against metal, as if someone was unlocking, or locking, a door. Who could be there? Perhaps the night watch, or members of the crew retrieving stores?

She stepped forward warily, realizing that, whoever it was, it would be better for all of them if she made her presence known. Then the voices suddenly stopped. She heard retreating footfalls, but the glow of the light still remained. Its source was hidden by a stack of stores. She would have to venture down the walk and turn the corner to see it.

She stopped abruptly, for she was distinctly certain now that she had heard footsteps behind her. She turned, but could see only darkness. Could it be Odulph? She began moving again, certain that she was being shadowed. Again, she heard the footfalls behind her, not one, but many. She increased her pace, sensing that she was in danger, convinced that whoever it was had somehow been waiting for her. She groped her way forward as quickly as her unsure footing would allow, equating the light up ahead with safety. There had to be someone there, and perhaps that person, or persons, could help her escape from her pursuers.

XIX

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The dark, freezing hold of the Argonaut  was not a place in which Lucius relished dying, but he could think of no other reason why Barca would have brought him here. Lucius had just finished a shift at the oars. His back ached from the long exertion, his muscles numbed from the endless rhythm, from hours spent fighting the currents of the open sea. He had crawled into his damp hammock for some much-needed sleep, and had just closed his eyes, when Barca had suddenly roused him and had brought him down here at the point of a dagger.

Lucius had half-thought to make a move against the paunch overseer, for the man was no warrior. He held the dagger in such a casual manner that Lucius could have easily wrenched it from him and plunged it into his throat before he took his next breath. But then what? Were he to kill Barca, where could he possibly hide on a ship at sea, with no land in sight? So, he had allowed Barca to direct him down the ladder to the lowest deck of the flagship. Barca had been very careful that they moved unseen. It had not been too difficult to pull off, since most of the crew were asleep in their hammocks.

Now, they were alone in the hold, facing each other, Lucius’s shackles looped around one of the support stanchions, Barca carefully standing just outside of Lucius’s reach.

“So, this is goodbye, Centurion,” Barca said, his face full of amusement. “I would have enjoyed seeing you squirm under my whip a little longer, but, alas, your time has come.”

“Why have you brought me here?” Lucius asked, though he was certain he knew the answer. He was simply stalling for time, as he kept a wary eye on the dagger in Barca’s hand, waiting for him to make a move.

But Lucius was surprised when Barca put the dagger away in its sheath. Then, chuckling to himself, the overseer hung the lantern from a nearby hook, set the key to the shackles on top of a nearby cask, just out of reach, and then climbed back up the ladder, still sniggering as he disappeared from view. Lucius did not know what to make of it at first, but then quickly deduced that he had been set up to be murdered.

Then, he heard someone coming from further aft, huffing as they moved with great haste along the walkway running down the middle of the ship. Lucius realized that the sound was that of a woman’s exertions just as the young, noble lady, the passenger he had often seen on deck, rounded the nearest stack of crates, white-faced and distraught. She stopped in her tracks when she saw Lucius. She glanced at his chains and appeared confused for a heartbeat before fright overtook her again.

“Please!” she said desperately. “Someone is right behind me! You must help me!”

Lucius held up the shackles and pointed to the key left by Barca. The slightest pause crossed her face as she evidently contemplated whether she should release a bound slave who, for all she knew, might do her as much or more harm than those following her. But, her fear of her pursuers won out, and she scrambled for the key.

She was a moment too late. Loud footfalls announced the arrival of her pursuers who came around the corner and made a dash for her. There were three of them, all wearing marine helmets with the faceplates drawn such that their features could not be seen. Lucius concluded that these men had either borrowed or stolen the helmets because their tunics were finer than any he had ever seen on a marine.

The woman tried to scream, but one of the attackers had his hand over her mouth instantly. The woman struggled to the point of hysteria as the helmeted brutes fought to gain control of her flailing arms. While the larger of the two dealt with her, the third, a man with slight shoulders, turned his attention to Lucius. Seeing the shackles on Lucius’s wrists, the man walked calmly towards him, drawing out a pugio dagger as he came. He was a fool, who should have given more respect to his opponent, because Lucius was playing an old trick, standing closer to the stanchion and pretending that his chain was shorter than it actually was. When the man came within the reach of the chain, still confident that his prey was restrained, Lucius took a full step away from the post and swiftly brought his bare foot up into the man’s genitals. The dagger fell to the floor as the man cried out in pain. He began to crumple, but Lucius reached out with one arm, took hold of the helmet, and quickly placed him in a choking headlock. The feeble man was not skilled at hand-to-hand fighting, and was completely at Lucius’s mercy, thrashing wildly, batting vainly at Lucius’s massive arm. A few more moments and Lucius would have squeezed the life out of him, but one of the others was suddenly there and bashed Lucius across the back of the head with a small cudgel. The next moment, Lucius was face down on the deck, seeing white spots, his head throbbing. He managed to open his eyes in time to see the woman utter a muffled scream and then fall limp in her attacker’s arms. A few steps away, the smaller man knelt on the deck, coughing violently beneath his helmet as he clutched his crushed genitals in one hand and his damaged neck in the other. The man who had struck Lucius now picked up the fallen dagger and raised it to finish the job. Lucius fully expected to feel the dagger in his spine in the next moment, but what happened instead made him wonder if the blow to his head was harder than he had originally thought.

A great cry came from seemingly everywhere at once, as if the entire compartment, indeed the ship, wailed in a demoniac howl. The three attackers looked at one another in confusion and then at the surrounding darkness. Then, out of the shadows, came a hair-covered, ape-like form that moved with a swiftness that was difficult to follow. It moved from one shadow to another, and the three men turned this way and that in an effort to follow it. Lucius heard the man holding the still form of the woman cry out in terror as a giant hand came out of the darkness and grasped him around the neck, squeezing him until his comrade with the dagger came to his aid, striking the hairy arm with the blade and forcing it to withdraw back into the shadows.

“What in Pluto’s infernal regions was that?” one of the men exclaimed.

“Wait! Listen!” said another. “Voices coming from the ladder well. The beast’s cry must have alerted the watch. We must flee!”

“Where to? We don’t know where that beast went!”

The voices descending the ladder were getting louder.

“Go, now!” coughed out the smaller man. “Back the way we came. I’ll be after you.”

Lucius was vaguely aware of the man grunting over him as he used the key to remove Lucius’s shackles. The man then limped off into the shadows behind his comrades, still clutching his groin.

Lucius had not understood why the man had unshackled him until the marines of the watch arrived, discovered the lady unconscious and Lucius mere paces away, and jumped to the obvious conclusion. They immediately laid into him, kicking him several times in the ribs as he struggled for breath, cursing him for attacking a noble woman of Rome. He did not feel most of the blows, as they shackled him once again. But then he noticed that the noble woman’s handmaid was also there, the hood of her cloak drawn over her head as she knelt beside her mistress’s still form. The hood turned once to look at Lucius, and he could see that the eastern woman’s face was set in an expression of confusion and anger. Lucius saw her thin features clearly in the lantern light, and again it awoke a memory within his aching head. But this time, he realized who she was. He remembered precisely where he had seen her before.

And now he understood why both he and her mistress had been marked for murder.

XX

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The next morning, Libo awoke to the mundane routine of an admiral at sea. After reviewing countless dismal reports, each reminding him of the shortages throughout the fleet, he left the scant breakfast in his cabin for an even more dismal task, one that he never relished.

There had been mischief in the night. Lady Calpurnia had been attacked in the hold. The night watch had found her there, lying unconscious beside a dazed slave – her apparent assailant. By Juno’s grace, poor Calpurnia was unharmed, though her dress had been torn in many places, and she had been frightened to the extent that she had fainted. She was now resting in her quarters under the watchful eye of her handmaid. As to the slave, it appeared he had suffered some injuries, and that was peculiar, since Calpurnia was such a petite woman. But regardless of how peculiar the circumstances, a noble woman had been attacked and such a sinister act could not go unpunished. On a ship the size of the Argonaut , where a score of unruly hands might move the entire crew to mutiny, such affairs must be dealt with swiftly and openly, that all may take notice and despair at any thoughts of similar behavior.

Libo ascended to the hatchway and stepped out into the sunlight wearing his blue cloak and best armor. A file of marines in shining mail and helmets clinked to attention on the stern deck, while nearby the boatswain unfurled his lash until the long hemp strands hung freely, each one tipped with a jagged sliver of bronze. A scribe rubbed a wax tablet smooth in preparation for recording the next events. Postumus was there, too, chatting with Flavius as he leaned against the larboard rail, as if taking only a casual interest in the proceedings.

The prisoner, who had spent the night shackled to the mast, was brought forward without a struggle and directed to stand before Libo. He was accompanied by the overseer, whom Libo had learned was called Barca. Regardless of the prisoner’s cooperation, Barca repeatedly struck him with a small baton, prompting him to move faster. The overseer appeared to take great pleasure in it, but the prisoner seemed unfazed. The large, muscular man looked tough as a hob-nailed boot.

“Here is the prisoner, my lord,” Barca said lustily, and then struck the shackled man’s bare legs with the baton. “On your knees before the admiral, slave!”

With a steady eye, the prisoner complied, clearly of his own volition and not in response to the abusive treatment.

This pleased the overseer, who giggled with glee. Libo saw the shifty-eyed man cast a knowing glance at the idling Postumus, but the senator either did not notice or chose not to acknowledge him. Libo thought it odd behavior, but he had come to understand that this Barca was an excitable thug, as many of his profession were.

As Libo studied the prisoner’s chiseled face, with its single scar, a memory stirred. The man’s powerful arms bound behind him and the massive chest nearly bursting forth the seams of his tattered tunic would have been enough, had Libo not instantly recognized the steady eyes that now looked back at him. He had seen this man before, in the adornment of a centurion, standing alone amid a carpet of corpses on the deck of the captured transport – the same transport that had flown the mysterious orange pennant. With all that had happened in the past two weeks, Libo had quite forgotten about it. Now, a flood of thoughts came over him as he began to catalog this string of seemingly coincidental events. The orange-flagged ship, Bibulus's untimely death, Senator Postumus’s secretive mission, Calpurnia’s insistence on sailing with the fleet, and now the centurion standing before him accused of assaulting her. The string of events went far beyond a reasonable threshold of randomness. What connection could this man possibly have to Calpurnia? How came he to attack her deep within the bowels of the ship? And why would he? As Libo turned these thoughts over, the grim-faced Naevius cleared his throat and prompted the scribe to read the order.

"The slave, Lucius Domitius of Spain,” the scribe read aloud in a drawling monotone, “being found in the execution of an act of ruthless and licentious aggression toward a noble lady of Rome, will now stand before the commander of the fleet, Admiral Scribonius Libo, to receive his sentence."

Libo noticed that the prisoner did not appear anxious or fearful, as might be expected of one condemned to an excruciating death. The prisoner’s gaze carried the same vibrancy and confidence as it had when Libo had last seen him, when his hands were not bound by chains, but defiantly held two bloody gladii.

The clerk yawned once, and then took up the stylus to record the next moments.

“Cut and dry, my lord,” Naevius said dismissively. “One thousand lashes is the usual punishment for such an offense. That should be enough to lay the scallywag’s ribs bare. Then we’ll leave him on the grating


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to die slowly over the next few days. It will serve as a reminder to the others.”

Libo knew well the sentence for such an infraction, but he hesitated to enact it. He felt a sudden overwhelming certainty that this centurion was his one hope to discovering the common thread that bound all of these strange events together, the only man who could give Libo the information he so desperately sought. How could he surrender him to the lash? As Libo’s mind raced for a solution, he noticed that the prisoner was looking back at him as if he knew his very thoughts.

“Does the prisoner wish to make a statement?” Libo finally said.

Naevius appeared taken aback. “Admiral, perhaps you enforced a different code of discipline in Aquila Squadron, but aboard the Argonaut , a noble woman’s word is never questioned over that of a slave. It sends the wrong message, sir.”

“He is not a slave!” Libo snapped, irritated at the captain’s near impertinence. “He was a centurion of Rome in his former life.” He turned to look back at the accused. “Now I wish to know, Centurion, have you anything to say for yourself? Why did you attack the Lady Calpurnia?”

“Forgive me, Admiral!” Senator Postumus broke in before the prisoner could speak. “But I’m afraid I must agree with the captain. Our dear Calpurnia has already suffered enough. Must you add further insult to her honor by stretching out these proceedings? This man is guilty, and must be punished without delay. He has no right to speak. Who knows what foul disparagements he might heap upon her noble person before going to his death.”

“I do not think that shall happen, Senator,” a woman’s voice said.

Every head turned to see Calpurnia emerge from the stern cabin. Her appearance sent a murmur of astonishment throughout the assembled hands. She wore a flowing blue dress, and her hair was neatly braided and crowned with a circlet of gold. She was the picture of posture and regality, looking every bit as put together as if she were departing for a day in the market.

“My lady!” Libo said with genuine concern. “You should not be here. You should be resting.”

“Thank you, Admiral, but I am fine. I am not quite as frail as you believe me to be.” She fired a look at Postumus. “I am compelled to be here. For I will not sit in my quarters while an innocent man is punished.”

“Innocent?” Postumus interjected again, the enmity in his face equal to that of Calpurnia, though he smiled and nodded to her curtly as one might show patience to a child. “My dear lady, perhaps the horror of your ordeal has clouded your head. The man was found lying beside you in the hold. There can be no doubt of his guilt.”

“You must have the wisdom of Posidonius, Senator, to come to such conclusions so quickly. I am the one who was attacked. I was there, and I say he is innocent!”

“Fortunately, my lady, your delicate heart need not exert itself with such decisions. It is quite out of your hands. The crime occurred aboard this warship, and thus, it is a matter concerning the breach of military discipline. Admiral Libo presides over these proceedings. It is for him, and only him, to declare guilt or innocence.”

“How kind of you to remind me,” she replied poisonously, and then cast a questioning glance at Libo.

“I’m afraid the senator is correct, my lady,” Libo said sympathetically, partly to make up for Postumus’s rudeness. “Your benevolence does you great credit, but naval law demands that the criminal be punished. It is in the interest of good order and discipline. You do understand, don’t you?”

“Do you now patronize me, too, Admiral?” she replied indignantly. “Of course I know discipline must be maintained. But discipline is not served when an innocent man is framed and the true villain goes free.”

“You say he is innocent, my lady,” Libo said politely, before anything insulting could issue from the senator. “Do you have any proof of that?”

“The proof of my own eyes, and my own memory. I know who assaulted me, Admiral, and it was not this man. This man tried to help me, but his chains prohibited it. Could a shackled man be my attacker? Surely, you can see the absurdity of such a notion.”

“But, my lady,” Flavius spoke up suddenly, shooting an odd glance at the senator. “The scoundrel was not shackled when he was found next to you.”

It had been an unusual outburst, and Calpurnia allowed the awkward moment to linger, pursing her lips in a small smile, waiting several long moments before responding.

“Your keen interest in the details of this affair warms my heart, Flavius,” she said derisively. “But bound or not, this man did not attack me.”

“Then you can identify the true offender?” Libo asked.

“Yes, Admiral,” she replied, never taking her eyes from Postumus, who now appeared slightly uncomfortable. She slowly raised her hand as if to point a finger at the senator, but then abruptly turned and pointed at another. “It was that man! There can be no question. He assaulted me!”

Every eye turned to look at the man she now accused. The devilish smile that had previously adorned the man’s face was now gone, replaced with surprise, confusion, and panic. Libo, too, was surprised. For the man whom Calpurnia now accused was the overseer Barca.

“Pardon my belaboring such a sensitive matter, my lady, but are you sure?”

“I am sure,” she answered without hesitation. “I saw him clearly in the light of the lantern.”

“No-no, my lady,” Barca stuttered, shaking his head. “It was not me. Not me, my lady.”

“Silence, vermin!” the handmaid snapped. She appeared ready to kill the man herself.

“But, how could it be me, my lady?” Barca stuttered nervously. “I did not see you in the hold last night. I…I was seeing to my duties last night.”

Libo saw Barca’s jittery eyes shoot a pleading glance at Postumus, and thought it very odd that he should keep looking in the senator’s direction.

“My dear lady,” Postumus said, cutting off the babbling overseer. “The light plays tricks on the eye. You were no doubt frightened out of your wits. While I’m sure you are frightened by the mere sight of this repulsive man,” the senator gestured at Barca, “there are so many like him on this vessel. How can you be certain he was the one?”

Marjanita stepped forward. “Last night, my mistress was wearing a cherished set of earrings given to her by her father. When I tended to her this morning, they were missing. This rogue must have made off with them before he fled.”

“Earrings, you say?” Libo asked, looking to Calpurnia for confirmation.

“Yes,” Calpurnia replied. “They were made of fine lapis lazuli.”

“Very well,” Libo sighed, glancing at Naevius. “I believe this can be resolved quickly, captain.”

“Aye, sir,” Naevius replied and then pointed to the front file of marines. “Go below, and search the kit of Barca the overseer.”

The marines saluted and marched down the hatchway. In the interval that followed, Libo noticed a staring competition of sorts between the short Barca and the tall prisoner. Barca smiled confidently, chuckled to himself, even cast taunting looks at the prisoner, no doubt filled with the self-assurance that the search would vindicate him. But, with each glance, Barca’s confidence began to visibly wane, for the prisoner did not appear in the slightest way concerned. He stared back at the overseer, his face set in a smug, almost amused expression, as if the two faced off across a latrunculi board and he had just played the winning move. By the time the marines trumped back up the ladder to report the results of their search, the overseer’s smile had faded completely and had been replaced with a look of dread.

Barca was now in a panic as the marines moved in, disarmed him of the baton, and bound him. The marine captain then approached Calpurnia and bowed, opening his hand to reveal two earrings of polished blue that twinkled in the morning sunlight.

“No…no!” Barca exclaimed disbelievingly. “This cannot be!” Again, he looked at Postumus, as if expecting some kind of assistance, finally pleading, “No… Senator…my lord, please…I -”

His pleas were quickly silenced by Flavius who was suddenly there and struck him violently across the face.

“Do not address the senator, scoundrel!” Flavius barked, as the bound man recoiled from the blow. “Who do you think you are?”

Barca was brought before Libo and the sentence was pronounced. A scratching noise was heard as the scribe vigorously rubbed out the centurion’s name, replacing it with the overseer’s, as casually as if he were correcting a mathematical error. Barca was practically sniveling as he was stripped of his clothes.

“Mercy, my lady,” he muttered under his breath. “Have mercy. It was not my fault. I wanted no harm to come to you.” When this drew no response from Calpurnia who looked out to sea as if he were not there, Barca cast a final pleading look at the senator. “My lord?”

Flavius moved as if to strike Barca again, but Postumus placed an arm on his adjutant’s shoulder to stop him. For a long moment, the senator stared at Barca as if he was considering whether or not to intercede on his behalf. When Naevius directed the marines to convey the condemned man to the grating, Postumus finally spoke.

“Wait, Captain Naevius.”

Libo watched with curiosity as the senator approached Naevius and the party of marines. A look of hope crossed the overseer’s face, but quickly evaporated when the senator drew a dark expression.

“Captain,” Postumus said without emotion. “It is possible this filth might further denigrate the lady’s honor as he endures the pain of the lash. Lady Calpurnia has suffered enough insults for one day. See to it that the rogue’s tongue is cut out.”

Naevius nodded and gestured to the marines, who quickly took hold of the overseer, one of them producing a pugio dagger.

“No! No! No!” Barca shrieked, his eyes wide with terror, his cries quickly degenerating into a perpetual dissonance of unintelligible screams.

XXI

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Libo settled into the chair while Lucius stood on the opposite side of the cramped cabin, shifting his weight with the gentle roll of the ship.

“You are surprised that I summoned you here,” Libo said, pouring himself a cup of wine. “Are you not? Much more surprised than you were when Lady Calpurnia intervened on your behalf.”

“I did not attack the lady, my lord,” Lucius replied simply.

“You were facing certain death, Centurion. All of the evidence pointed to you. That lashing we both just witnessed, the overseer’s fate, might have been yours, had the lady not interceded. And yet, you did not appear the least bit concerned. You were as collected as a man preparing to bed down for the night. It was as if you somehow knew…” Libo eyed him suspiciously. “How do you explain that?”

“Perhaps ten years on campaign has dulled my fear of death, my lord.”

Lucius set his face in a stolid expression. He could tell Libo did not believe him, and indeed Lucius had given him a half-truth. While Lucius had spent many hard years suffering and witnessing unspeakable acts of cruelty on a hundred battlefields, and while those events had shaped him into the hardened warrior he was today, it had not been those experiences alone that had given him such an outward display of confidence on the brink of his own execution. Lucius had failed to mentioned the chief reason for his coolness, the event that had happened in the dark hours of the morning, after he had been apprehended and chained to the mast.

As he had sat slumped against the groaning fir column, trying to piece together the attack in the hold, and why Barca or anyone else might wish to do away with him in such a fashion, the handmaid had materialized out of the darkness. She had been cloaked in black and had moved as one with the night shadows, slithering from one dark corner to another, unseen by the deck watch, and completely unnoticed by Lucius until she was suddenly beside him.

“Do not turn to look at me, Roman!” She whispered harshly. “If you wish to live, you will answer my questions discreetly. Three weeks ago, you were in Rome, were you not?”

“I’m pleased that you remember, lass. You were dressed then much as you are now.” He then smiled and added. “But I prefer you as I saw you on deck the other night. Do you always swim in the nude?”

“Silence, dog! You will answer yes or no, or I will slit your throat here and now!”

He felt the cold steel of a blade against his neck, and nodded compliantly.

“You were aboard a ship bound for the Epirus coast,” she said. “A ship flying an orange banner?”

“Yes.”

“Do you then carry a message?”

“No.”

“Do not lie to me!” She pressed the steel deep against his neck.

“Easy with that knife, lass. I do not lie. I was assigned as bodyguard to one who carried a message, but he was killed.”

“Killed?”

“Aye.”

“And the message died with him?”

“He did tell me a few things, before he went to the afterlife,” Lucius said, glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. “But I don’t like discussing business with the point of a blade in my gullet.”

From the long sigh she exuded he could tell that she was considering what she should do with him. While she paused, some of the pieces of the mystery behind Marcellus’s mission began to fall into place in Lucius’s mind. Lucius had seen this same woman, who now held a blade to his throat, three weeks ago, at Antony’s house in Rome. Lucius had been standing watch as captain of the guard and had conveyed her to Antony’s chamber, for she had claimed to bear some secret correspondence for Antony’s eyes alone. He had not seen her again that night, but the very next day he had been summoned to Antony’s lavish party and had been given the commission to escort Marcellus to Greece. He did not yet know how, or through what twist of the fates, that same woman now held a dagger to his throat, but he knew that the attempt to murder him and this woman’s mistress had to be connected to the message Marcellus had borne.

In the few moments of silence, Lucius sensed that the woman was indecisive. She was considering whether to cut his throat or get more information from him.

“Who have you told of this?” she asked finally.

“No one.”

“Listen to me, dog!” she said after a moment’s consideration. “You will say nothing about this message or your mission here. Understand? No matter what transpires, you will say nothing!”

He raised his hands, presenting the chains that bound him. “My prospects do not look fair at the moment, lass. My silence may be the death of me, should they question me in the morning.”

She instantly pressed the dagger hard enough against his skin to draw blood. “I assure you, Roman, your silence is your only chance to live. Say one word, and I will see that you die most painfully. Hold your tongue, and my mistress will help you.”

“Your mistress would help me, a common soldier?”

“Say nothing.” She was looking into his eyes, as if to find if there was any treachery there. Her eyes were menacing, but they also carried a natural alluring quality, one that even her rough temperament could not overshadow, and Lucius suddenly remembered what Antony had said about the hypnotic beauty of Asiatic women. “You will say nothing,” she repeated a final time before slithering back into the night.

Indeed there had been a moment that morning, as the charges were read out and the sentence nearly pronounced, when Lucius had considered using the information he guarded to save his own life. He did not know its true importance, but he suspected it might intrigue this Admiral Libo enough to spare him from the lash, at least for a little while.

The slightest perceptible shake of the head from Calpurnia had changed Lucius’s mind. He had taken a gamble, and had trusted her, and she had delivered. Barca had suffered in his place, and how he had suffered. Whatever evil the cruel overseer had meted out in his days strolling the planks between the benches, he had certainly now received his due reckoning. Lucius did not know exactly how Calpurnia had managed to implicate Barca, but he imagined the nimble woman who was evidently skilled at both stealth and swimming would have had little trouble planting the earrings in the overseer’s kit.

Calpurnia had lived up to her word, although Lucius was sure the noble lady had not expected the admiral to whisk him away so quickly. Certainly, she had expected Lucius to be placed back on the oars, which would have allowed her time to arrange a private meeting with him.

Now, as Lucius stared back at Libo, he sensed that the admiral was not in league with the Lady Calpurnia and had an entirely separate agenda of his own.

“I take it Barca did not like you?” Libo said. “Nor you him, I suppose.”

“I will not miss him, sir. Though, I’d have preferred to kill the bastard with my own two hands.”

“It puzzles me, though, Centurion. Why would Barca go to such elaborate means to frame you? Surely, had he wished to do away with you, he could have done it. He could have concocted any reason to have you flogged to death.”

“They wanted the lady dead, too, sir.”

“They?” Libo asked curiously.

“There were several of them, sir. At least three, apart from Barca. The others wore helmets, so I didn’t see their faces.”

“Three, you say?”

“I counted three, sir. Two were big, fighting men, the other was of slighter build.” Lucius decided not to mention anything about the ape-like creature. He was still not entirely convinced he had not hallucinated that part.

Libo stared at the table and seemed to consider for a long moment before looking up at Lucius again. “You were the one I saw on the transport – the vessel that displayed the orange pennant. You were the last survivor.”

“Indeed I was, sir.”

“Why would they single out you? Unless there is some connection between the events of last night, and your mission.” Libo eyed him peculiarly. “What was your mission, Centurion? Why were you on that ship, and what in Neptune’s trident was the meaning of the orange pennant?”

“As to the pennant, I don’t right know, sir. As to my mission, all I wished to do was rejoin my legion, but I was given an assignment to complete along the way. I was to escort a senior officer to a rendezvous in Epirus.”

“A senior officer?” Libo said quizzically. “The legate that was run through by the Greek captain?”

“The same, sir. Marcellus was his name. Though, I don’t know much else about him.”

“He said something to you before he died. Did he not?”

“Yes, sir,” Lucius said.

“Something that troubled you.” Libo had evidently detected the chord of anger in Lucius’s reply.

“The whore-spawn General Marc Antony sent me on that mission, sir. Said I could rejoin my legion once I saw Marcellus to his destination. But Antony had it out for me. He’d given orders to Marcellus to have me murdered once we reached Epirus.”

“And it was Marcellus himself who told you this?” Libo asked attentively.

“I suppose he had a moment of conscience, sir, after I’d defended him to the last. Or maybe he was just delirious. Either way, I know it in my bones that he spoke the truth in those last moments, and I’ll be sure to pay a visit to General Marcus bloody Antony should I ever set foot in Italy again.”

Libo appeared to contemplate that for a moment. “Was that all the legate told you?”

“No, sir,” Lucius said with forced hesitancy, for he had expected the question.

Libo seemed to instantly detect his reluctance to say more and assumed a more congenial disposition. “You know, Centurion, you and I have much in common.”

“We do, sir?” Lucius smiled, knowing full well he was being wooed.

“You and I are both alone on this ship. You are a soldier of Caesar’s army, a prisoner surrounded by many who would see you dead for a variety of reasons. Similarly, I have been given this command without any of my old mates whom I trusted to the core. Neither of us can trust anyone. We are duty-bound men of arms playing on a field of politicians.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“For instance, Centurion. I know that Senator Postumus is here under false pretenses. He purports to be on official business of the Senate, but undoubtedly there is some ulterior motive in that ill-tempered, gray head of his. And I am sure it has little to do with saving our republic.”

“I’m sure you’re right, sir.”

Libo smiled at the pat response. “I suppose we should get down to business then.” He looked thoughtfully at Lucius. “I need to know what the senator is up to. I believe it has something to do with the message Marcellus was carrying. You are my only prospect of learning the contents of that message. Do you not see, Centurion? We need each other.”

“You need me, sir? A centurion of Caesar’s?”

“Without your information, I am a blind man upon a precipice. Likewise, you need me, Lucius. For, without my protection, you will spend the rest of this war, and quite possibly the rest of your life, chained to the end of an oar. I’m sure you would rather leave this dreadful conflict behind you and go home to Spain. You have family there, do you?”

“I have nothing in Spain, sir. Besides, Italy is closer. Brundisium will do.”

Libo looked at him quizzically for a moment, and then smiled, “Ah, yes, of course. Antony is in Brundisium. Well, in any event, if you agree to help me, I shall arrange for your parole. If you choose to use it to seek your revenge, that is your business. Now, what say you, Centurion? Are we agreed?”

XXII

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The fleet arrived off Brundisium the next day. The brief interval of fair weather came to an end just as the coast came into view. A bank of clouds rolled over the sea, bringing with it a cold stinging rain and shrouding the distant town and inner harbor with an impenetrable mist.

Libo had ordered the fleet to cruise several leagues offshore to ensure that no surprise shift in the wind put them onto the rocks. Now, he stood against the larboard rail, straining his eyes to see through the squall. He was aware that Lucius stood a few paces behind him, the former centurion and former slave now bedecked in a new uniform tunic and cloak. He was still forbidden from carrying arms, but his bindings were all gone. His new position demanded that he roam the ship freely.

As expected, upon hearing of Libo’s decision to make the slave his personal valet, Postumus was beside himself with anger. The senator had barged into Libo’s cabin unannounced.

“This is quite out of the ordinary, Admiral! Quite out of the ordinary, indeed! It shows poor judgement on your part. As the only representative of the Senate aboard, I demand that you place the Caesarian scum back in irons and confine him to the benches, where he belongs! You place this mission, and yourself, in too much danger trusting him.”

“He is part of this crew, Senator,” Libo had replied calmly. “He is, therefore, my responsibility. I came to the Argonaut  without even my personal servants, since you and the Senate demanded I bring no one with me from the Remus . You may give me orders regarding this fleet, Senator. Send my squadrons where you will. But I will have the privilege of choosing my own valet.” Libo had eyed Postumus sportingly. “Besides, the slave has proved useful to me. He has provided me with much information about our mission – much more than you and the Senate have chosen to share. Tell me, Senator, who is it that we will be meeting on Basada, two days hence?”

Postumus’s face had instantly reddened with anger, and he had stormed out of the cabin without saying another word. Libo had quite enjoyed making the old bastard squirm for a change.

It had not taken Libo long to figure out the meaning of the message Basada on the Ides , and seeing Postumus uncomfortable was nearly compensation enough for the deal he had made to get it. Lucius Domitius had agreed to yield the secret message in exchange for his release. Lucius had kept his end of the bargain, and consequently Libo had appointed the centurion as his personal valet until a suitable time presented itself to drop him off somewhere on the coast.

Now, as Libo looked down the rain-swept deck, he could see the forms of Postumus and Flavius standing on the foredeck, conversing quietly within their hooded cloaks. Perhaps they were discussing how they might deal with this new problem. For, if they truly did plan to meet with someone on the isle of Basada, which lay on the periphery of Brundisium Harbor and under the enemy’s very nose, they would certainly need his cooperation.

As Libo pondered, his attention was suddenly drawn away by Naevius, who approached him and saluted.

“Ship coming alongside, Admiral,” he reported. “It’s the trireme Minerva  from the outer squadron. She’s got a small vessel in tow, sir. She’s requesting to bring prisoners aboard.”

The two ships came together, and five bound men were marched across the gangplank at the point of the sword, ushered by the Minerva’s  captain and a file of marines. The prisoners were quickly ordered to their knees on the pitching deck before Libo.

“Who are they?” Libo demanded.

“They claim to be fishermen, my lord,” the captain of the Minerva  answered. “They were making great haste when we came upon them. They dashed through our blockade and tried to reach the harbor. They’d have made it, had their little craft not been swamped by a rogue wave.”

“Why were you running?” Libo addressed the kneeling men.

“It is not wise for any mariner to be out in seas like this, my lord,” said one, whose age and leathery skin indicated that he was the master of the others. The storm came upon us suddenly and blew us out to sea. We have been fighting to keep her afloat all day. Once we happened on a favorable wind, we made for the coast as best we could. We were simply seeking the safety of the harbor.”

“He lies, my lord!” Naevius exclaimed. “No fool with any sense in his head would approach the rocks at Brundisium in this weather – not unless he had orders to do so.”

Libo nodded, having already come to the same conclusion, and addressed the fisherman again. “This blow has persisted all day. I have scarcely seen a fishing craft in that time, nor have I expected to. Tell me, gentlemen, what is it that gives you such bravado to weather such a storm when the others of your trade dare not leave port? Could it be that you have not been at sea for days, but only hours? Could it be that you were running from Epirus to Italy, perhaps? Could it be that you are confederates of Caesar?”

“No, my lord!” the master said disgustedly, spitting on the rain-slickened deck. “We curse the name of Caesar and all who serve him! We pray for the day when Rome is once again ruled by the people and the Senate.”

The captain of the Minerva  audibly scoffed at this. “Ask him to explain this, my lord.” He gestured to a marine who quickly approached and placed a small chest on the deck at Libo’s feet. The marine opened the chest and drew out its contents, tossing each on the deck – a leather cuirass, a cavalry helmet, a carefully folded cloak, a small purse filled with coins, and a scarlet band of silk. They were all Roman, all of good quality, and could only belong to a knight. The silk band was the most damning of the collection. Caesar had ordered his troops to wear such markings on their arms to differentiate them from Pompey’s legionaries.

“One of you is a Roman officer,” Libo stated rather than asked. “And it is not difficult to guess which.”

Libo then strode over to the youngest of the five kneeling men. The man stood out from the rest. He had short hair that was not matted and curled from years in the salty air. The young man’s skin was not wrinkled and leathery, nor were his hands calloused and lined with scars from a lifetime handling lines.

“Who are you?” Libo demanded. “There is no reason to lie now.”

The young man looked up, his eyes no longer humble and averted, but proud and defiant. He stared straight up at Libo as he boldly replied, “I serve Rome, and the consul Gaius Julius Caesar.”

“And what message were you bearing?”

“I bear no message. I travel to my home in Naples. News reached me in the field that my elderly father has died. I am returning to see to my family.”

“It is interesting that Caesar insults us so,” Postumus said from beneath his hood. He and Flavius had quietly approached the spectacle. “Or are there so few true knights amongst Caesar’s host that he is forced to send idiots such as this one?”

Libo ignored the senator, but addressed the kneeling group. “It has been well-known on this coast for many months that the Senate-in-exile bears no ill-will toward those in Italy suffering under this conflict, including those who must continue their trade under the tyrant’s rule. It is also known, that th


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ose caught assisting Caesar in his military efforts will be punished.” The fishermen’s faces twisted into fear as they awaited his next words. “These men are guilty of treason. The knight will be put to death. The others will be added to the Argonaut’s  complement of rowers and serve this ship for the remainder of the war.”

The young knight bowed his head, as if coming to peace with the verdict, while the fishermen, realizing they would be spared, stretched themselves prostrate at Libo’s feet, pouring out their thanks for his mercy. But their relieved looks quickly vanished when Postumus stepped forward.

“That is more clemency than your authority allows, Admiral,” the senator said succinctly.

“Sickness has swept through my decks, Senator. I am in need of rowers, and these men look strong enough. They serve our cause better alive, chained to an oar.”

“And I say, they will serve better as examples to others. The Senate is very explicit on what their fates should be. I demand that you have them executed, immediately. Let others who might be enticed to follow in their errant ways see how treason is rewarded.”

The fishermen began to protest, shaking their heads and clasping their hands together. They pleaded at Postumus’s feet, but this seemed only to disgust the senator more.

“Have them thrown overboard, Admiral. That is the only suitable fate for these miscreants.”

“Senator, I must protest,” Libo interjected. “I command here – “

“The ships and the fleet, and all military matters, yes! You made that very clear to me before, Admiral. But this is a political matter. And as the only representative of the Senate present, I demand that you carry out their will!”

Libo stared back at him for a moment, and thought to protest further, but then the realization of the futility of such an effort overcame him. He looked at the marines and gave a small nod.

The fishermen never stopped begging for mercy as they were pulled up by their bindings and shuffled to the gangway, each man stricken with panic. One by one, with their hands and feet bound, they were thrown screaming into the dark, boiling sea. Libo was sickened by the deed, but he was hopeless to stop it. He could see that Postumus brandished a smug visage, whether at the fates of the fishermen or at having exercised his dominance over the admiral of the fleet, Libo could not tell.

The deck grew silent after the last gargling voice was swallowed by the waves, and now the kneeling Roman awaited his fate. He kept his eyes closed and appeared to be muttering a prayer, seemingly oblivious to all around him. As a knight, he was entitled to a more honorable death and would be killed with the sword. The marines soon disrupted his final meditation, tearing his tunic, and stripping him to the waist in order to make the cut clean. A swordsman stepped forward to carry out the sentence, but before he lifted his blade to strike, Flavius suddenly called out for him to stop.

“Wait, soldier!”

Libo shot an irritated look at the adjutant, incensed that he would put the kneeling man through a more protracted interval, but Flavius did not seem to notice his irritation.

“I think, Senator,” Flavius said, smiling sinisterly, “this may be an opportune moment to put the admiral’s new valet to the test. Don’t you?”

Postumus appeared invigorated by the suggestion. “Yes, Flavius. An excellent opportunity indeed. How keen of you to suggest it.” Postumus then turned to Libo. “You say that former centurion of Caesar’s has had a change of heart, Admiral? Let us test that, at this very moment.”

“That is not necessary, Senator.”

“No, Admiral!” Postumus said sharply. “I really must insist! We cannot stake the success of our mission simply on your intuition. We must know for certain!”

Libo glanced at Lucius. He stood by the rail, his chiseled face streaming rain and sea spray, and forming a countenance that could be taken for fierce determination or sheer boredom. It was impossible to tell whether he had even heard a word of the exchange. He seemed completely unfazed by the deaths of the fishermen or the imminent execution of the young knight.

Libo knew that he could refuse, but some part of him wanted to know if Postumus’s suspicions were correct. Was Lucius playing him for a fool? Did he really despise Anthony as much as he claimed? The fact that Anthony tried to have him killed should be enough to set him against the Caesarian cause, but Libo had seen crazier loyalties before, especially from the ranks of the centurions. He had heard of centurions leading mutinies against their own general and turn around to fight vigorously for the same general once their grievances were answered. As much as he admired and was fond of Lucius, he had to know for certain where his loyalties now lay.

“As you wish, Senator,” Libo finally said, then motioned for Lucius to approach.

“Yes, sir,” Lucius said evenly, not even glancing at the young man kneeling on the deck only a few paces away.

“Lucius, that man is a traitor and has been sentenced to death. You will slay him. He is a knight, so make it quick.”

“Yes, sir,” Lucius replied. Without hesitation, he strode over to the kneeling man and accepted the sword from the marine. As he took up position behind the condemned man, the marines and the other bystanders stood back to allow ample room for the swing of the blade.

With sword in hand, Lucius set his feet firmly against the tilting deck. The wind howled through the masts, making the sails flap wildly, like the wings of an angry dragon. It was so deafening, in fact, that Lucius almost did not hear the words muttered through the gritted teeth of the man he was to slay.

“Lucius,” the man said, never turning his head. “Thank, Jupiter. I thought it was you, but I could not be certain. Glad I am that it will be your stroke, and not that of one of these novices.”

This was said low enough that only Lucius could hear. Lucius coughed lowly, but said nothing in response, knowing full-well that Libo and Postumus’s eyes were watching his every move, searching for any hint of hesitation.

Of course, Lucius knew the knight that now laid his neck bare before him. Lucius had recognized him from the moment the marines had dragged him aboard. It was Horatius Pullo, a tribune of the Tenth, whom Lucius knew casually and with whom he had marched on various campaigns across Gaul. It did not surprise Lucius that the young knight would volunteer for such an assignment as this. Pullo was prone to such recklessness. Lucius could remember more than one patrol along the wood-shrouded paths of northern Gaul in which the blundering tribune had nearly led his men into an ambush. Still, Pullo was never known to shirk the battle line. He was not the best of officers, nor the brightest – but there certainly were worse.

Taking a moment to adjust the placement of his fingers on the cold wet sword grip, Lucius knew that he had little choice but to carry out the task before him.

“My cloak, Lucius,” Pullo mumbled again. “Do not let it leave your person.”

Lucius rested the rain-beaded blade on the knight’s shoulder as if judging the distance to his victim’s neck. He did not need to do this. He was a skilled swordsman and could lop off Pullo’s head without a thought. He was stalling, waiting to see if Pullo had anything else to tell him.

The pause, however, was noticed by Libo.

“What is the delay, Lucius?” the admiral demanded from the stern deck.

Lucius had only moments to respond, and Pullo seemed to comprehend this.

“Search the hem of my cloak, Lucius,” Pullo said quickly. “You will find a message there. You must get it to Antony! If ever you were a loyal soldier to Caesar, you must do this!”

Lucius paused only a heartbeat longer, just long enough to tap the cold blade on Pullo’s bare shoulder that the knight might go to his death knowing that, if it was within Lucius’s power, the message would be delivered. Pullo nodded slightly and closed his eyes.

The next instant, steel flashed beneath the gray sky. The knight’s head left his shoulders, falling straight down and rolling away at the next pitch of the deck. It was a feat of swordsmanship that left all around him staring with open-mouths, including Libo and Postumus. They were still staring as Lucius silently returned the dripping blade to the marine.

Libo gave Postumus a triumphant look. “I would say his loyalty is without question. Wouldn’t you, Senator?”

Both men watched as Lucius dutifully folded the cloak around the headless body, carefully patted the wrinkles smooth, and dragged the dead man away to be buried at sea.

Libo saw Postumus and Flavius exchange knowing glances, and then the senator turned to face him.

“We must meet, Admiral,” Postumus said bluntly. “We must speak with you in private.”

XXIII

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“We have, perhaps, gotten off on the wrong foot, Admiral,” Postumus said as he selected an almond from the bowl of nuts on the table before him. “First off, you must know that Flavius and I are admirers of yours. You were undoubtedly the best choice to replace Bibulus, and are certainly superior to him in your abilities.”

Libo looked guardedly back at Postumus, and then at Flavius who nodded as if to concur with what the senator had just said.

“My gratitude to you both,” Libo replied cordially.

The three men sat across from each other at the long dining table in the officers’ mess. The room had been cleared out for the occasion, the Argonaut ’s officers, including Naevius, curtly informed that they would have to take their supper on deck this evening. One of the senator’s burly bodyguards stood at the doorway, ensuring the deliberations remained private, while the other stood just behind Postumus and Flavius, as if he was prepared to protect the senator and his adjutant should Libo choose to leap across the table at them. Lucius was there, too. He stood a few steps behind Libo’s seat, unarmed, but ready to serve as a protector to Libo should the need arise. The tension and the distrust was thick in the room, like they were two rival factions discussing peace after long years of conflict.

Lucius noticed that Flavius was studying him with a disgusted look, as if he was offended by the centurion’s presence. Earlier, Lucius had not failed to observe the man’s odd limp and pained expression when he had taken his seat, as if he suffered from a recent injury to his groin.

Postumus was about to speak when Flavius interjected. “Forgive me, Senator, but before we begin, would it not be wise to have this buffoon of Caesar’s removed? He should not hear what we are about to discuss.”

“Centurion Domitius is my responsibility, Flavius,” Libo spoke up. “He understands the tyrant led him astray, and he is now fully committed to our cause. He stands here at my bidding.”

Flavius did not appear pleased with that answer, but it seemed acceptable to Postumus, who glanced reproachfully at his adjutant before speaking.

“I asked for this meeting, Admiral, because the time has come to share with you the purpose of my mission.”

“I am pleased to hear it, Senator,” Libo replied cordially. “But I believe I already know of the time and the place of your meeting with Antony.”

Postumus shot a scowl at Lucius. “Let me assure you, Admiral, whatever information this brute has given you, it is not the full story. You must hear me out, if you are to fully understand my mission, the importance of which cannot be overstated.”

A sudden commotion in the passage prompted every man in the room to turn his head. Calpurnia and her handmaid stood in the doorway, barred from entrance by the muscled arm of the guard.

“Oh, my dear young lady,” Postumus said with polite irritation. “These proceedings are quite private. I’m so sorry, but whatever business you have with the admiral will have to wait.”

“Lady Calpurnia is here at my request, Senator,” Libo said.

Postumus smiled at him condescendingly. “Admiral, these matters are inappropriate for the ears of a young lady. I must insist that you ask her to leave.”

“An attempt was made on my life, Senator,” Calpurnia spoke, glaring at him accusingly. “My father was murdered.”

“Murdered? Oh, my dear young lady – “

“I have a right to know, Senator!”

“To know what, my dear?” Postumus still spoke in a polite tone, but Lucius could see that his white-knuckled fingers nearly bored holes in the polished armrests of his stool.

Libo interjected. “Your mission, Senator, and the unfortunate attack on Lady Calpurnia must be connected in some way. I asked Lady Calpurnia to come here tonight with the thought that she might have information that could prove useful.”

“I don’t see how,” Postumus said aghast, but then Flavius touched his sleeve.

“I believe it could do little harm, Senator,” the adjutant said in an oddly agreeable tone. “Perhaps the admiral is right.”

Postumus looked at Flavius apprehensively, but then finally acquiesced and motioned for the guard to admit her. Calpurnia bowed her head courteously and then took a seat on Libo’s side of the table. Her handmaid stood a few paces behind her, and shot a brief glance at Lucius, who returned her glower with a playful smile.

“Well, now that we are all here,” Postumus said, the irritation not yet entirely absent from his tone. “Let me start by acquainting you with the facts. Nearly three weeks ago, I received a secret communique from one of our agents in Rome – a man who sits on Antony’s inner circle of advisors.”

“This communication came to you?” Libo said skeptically. “Not to the Senate?”

“I know it sounds unusual, Admiral,” Postumus said dismissively, “but this informant is an associate of mine. He is a very trustworthy source, and is committed to the restoration of the republic, just as we all are.

“I see.”

“Precisely twenty days ago,” Postumus continued, “Antony received a late night visitor at his home in Rome under very strange circumstances. The visit was unannounced and appeared to take Antony off his guard, but he received the visitor, nonetheless, and both he and the visitor retired to his inner chamber. The substance of their discussion is unknown, but upon emerging from the conference, Antony immediately summoned Tribune Atilius Marcellus – who you may remember acted as treasurer and disbursing officer to Caesar through much of his Gallic campaigns – and then sent orders to Brundisium that a flotilla of ships be assembled to attempt an immediate crossing of the Adriatic with four cohorts. Marcellus was dispatched there to join it, with an armed escort, whom I believe you already know was this centurion, here.” Postumus gestured grudgingly at Lucius. “Marcellus sailed with the fleet, bound for Epirus.”

“In an orange-flagged ship?” Libo speculated.

“Precisely. Several dozen vessels put to sea that day, hastily loaded with whatever troops could be put into them, but we surmise these were decoys and of little value. We believe the sole intent of that entire excursion was to ensure the orange-flagged ship got through. It is likely that none of the other captains knew about it.”

“Why the orange flag?” Libo asked curiously. “That’s not very inconspicuous, unless Caesar was so eager to receive Marcellus that he wanted to know when his ship approached.”

“You are assuming Marcellus was on his way to meet with Caesar. Of course, he was not. What would be the point of the secrecy, of not sharing the information with even his closest advisors, or not providing a stronger escort? No, my dear Admiral, Antony was up to something – something that he did not want Caesar to know about.”

“So, the orange banner was intended to be seen by someone else?” Libo concluded. “Someone in our fleet?”

“We believe it was an agreed upon signal, in the event the ship was captured. We believe it was meant to protect Marcellus from the very fate he suffered. Perhaps the intended recipient had agents within our fleet instructed to look out for it. Perhaps agents aboard this very ship.”

“Agents of the Raven perhaps?” Libo said it casually, but the effect was noticeable on Postumus and Flavius’s faces. The senator shot a scowl at Lucius, obviously understanding the source of Libo’s information.

“I see that the centurion knows much more than we suspected, Admiral,” Postumus finally said, then smiled. “The Raven is no one you need concern yourself with. He is simply -“

“The Raven is a murderer!” Calpurnia interrupted suddenly, her face red with anger as she glared at the senator. “He killed my brothers. He killed my father.”

“Come now, my lady,” Postumus said tetchily. “You must admit that such a claim is a bit fanciful.”

Calpurnia appeared ready to respond in an incendiary manner, but Libo spoke first. “With all respect to you both, is not this Raven a myth? I have heard tales of the Raven Brotherhood since I was a boy. It is the stuff of conspiracies and intrigue, something we all use as an explanation for the unexplainable.”

“The Raven is no myth, Admiral,” Calpurnia said. “He is very real. His followers are real. His bloody hand is involved in nearly everything that happens in Rome. His iron-fist stretches across the empire.”

“In all of my years serving the empire, my lady,” Libo said doubtfully, “I have never come in contact with him.

“Do you see Jupiter in his flesh, Admiral?” Calpurnia replied hotly. “Do you see Mars on the battlefield? Of course not. But you see evidence of their power. You see their influence all around you. Mark you me, Admiral, there is a secret order within the Senate that is the true governing body of Rome. It is a small cadre of senators, known only by its members. It directs the affairs of the empire from the shadows.”

“But to what end, my lady?” Libo asked doubtfully.

“That their leader, a man called the Raven – a man who is said to be directly descended from the Tarquins, the ancient kings of Rome – might gain supreme power.” As she spoke, she turned and looked directly across the table at Postumus. “That he might do away with the Senate and the voting assemblies, and establish a new dynasty to rule the Romans as did the kings of old. He will stop at nothing.”

Postumus suddenly laughed out loud, but it seemed unnatural, as if he was uncomfortable under Calpurnia’s stare. “My dear lady, Rome’s kings have been gone for well over four hundred years. The Tarquins no longer exist. These are merely stories meant to scare children into believing the dreaded tyrants might one day return should we not hold fast to our republican values. It is, indeed, a great story, but too fantastical to have any truth to it. What’s next? Will Aeneas appear and demand of the kings his lands be restored? Or will the she-wolf of Romulus return in the guise of a man to stake her own claim? It is too absurd to give it a second thought.” Postumus then looked at Libo. “As Lady Calpurnia has suggested, Admiral, there is no doubt some man calling himself the Raven, and he may perhaps hold some sway over a certain base of clientele, but I do not share her opinion of the extent of his power or his intentions.”

“Then, it is this Raven whom you believe has made some sort of arrangement with Antony?” Libo asked.

“That is correct, Admiral,” Postumus said earnestly. “Thanks to our agent in Rome, the Senate in Thessalonica was informed as to the details of this arrangement, and Flavius and I have been sent to head it off, or capitalize on it, if all goes well.”

“But I thought you said the substance of Antony’s meeting with the mysterious visitor was unknown.”

“We did not wish to bring you in on all of the details, Admiral, more for your own good than for any other reason. It would have been best had you simply delivered us to our destination tomorrow, and forgotten about the whole thing. But, now that you have other birds whispering in your ears,” Postumus glanced ruefully at Calpurnia and then Lucius, “you might as well know everything. You may have heard, Admiral, the rumors of late, that Caesar has opened the aerarium stabulum – the public treasury reserves in Rome – for his own personal use. Well, I am afraid these rumors are true. The brigand Caesar is using the public purse to keep his legions in the field, not only those in Italy and Spain, but those now afoot in Greece with the tyrant himself. Antony was to bring this money with him when he brought his legions across the Adriatic. However, Antony is having second thoughts about his allegiance to Caesar, and has decided to use that money to another purpose. The man is bloated with ambition. He has made a deal with the Raven. He is to hand over half of the aerarium, some thirty million sesterces, in exchange for an appointment as the supreme commander of all Optimates armies. Apparently, the fool Antony believes the Raven carries enough influence with the Senate that such an edict is possible. Of course, you and I know that is utter nonsense. Pompey is the commander and will always be the commander. The Senate has no plans to replace him, nor would they ever consider choosing a verbose, inept, blood-sucking tick like Antony for such a position, no matter how persuasive this Raven thinks he is. It really is quite laughable.” Postumus chuckled while Flavius smirked beside him.

“And yet, Senator,” Calpurnia spoke contemptuously, “the Raven seems to hold sway over Rome’s vassals.”

“Forgive me, my lady,” Postumus said, still smiling. “But I do not know to what you are referring.”

“Do you not? Why, I am referring to that whore in Alexandria who calls herself the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra Philopator. The murder of my brothers happened under her very nose, and she did nothing to stop it, nor did she make any moves to apprehend the true criminals. Why not? Because they were agents of the Raven, and she was instructed not to interfere.” Calpurnia paused, looking fervently at Postumus. “Do you know what it's like, Senator, to see the heads of your brothers presented to you like a fisherman's catch of the day? Cleopatra sent them to my father, preserved in oil, the Egyptian way of honoring the dead, she claimed, that my father might bury them properly. But I would rather she had tossed them to the crocodiles.” Calpurnia trembled as she spoke, whether out of anguish or anger, it was impossible to tell. "I can still see them as they were presented to my father. Those faces with which I had so many happy memories, now slick, contorted, frozen in the horror of their last breath. That is the image that haunts me whenever I think of the Raven, Senator. For it was by his order that my brothers were slain."

"You have our sincerest condolences, my dear," Postumus added in something that sounded like sympathy. "It is simply unimaginable what you have been through. It has been some time, but I seem to remember reading that Queen Cleopatra apprehended the vile wretches responsible for the murders and sent them to your father.”

"The vile wretch was the queen herself, Senator. She sent a few common criminals in chains to Antioch, hoping to placate my father, while allowing the real murderers, members of the Raven Brotherhood, to escape!"

"No disrespecting your brothers' tragedy, my dear, but do you have anything to substantiate that?"

"Nothing happens by accident in Alexandria, Senator," her eyes were cold and locked onto his. "Nothing that the children of the drunkard Ptolemy do not arrange, either to undermine others or one another. And, yes, I do have proof.”

Calpurnia turned and nodded to Marjanita. The handmaid stepped forward, removed an object from a pouch at her belt, and placed it on the table. Lucius could see that it was a signet ring of black and gold, and that it bore the emblem of a lighted bird, which he assumed to be a Raven. It was much like any other signet ring he had seen before, much like ones he had seen legates use to sign documents, but he noticed that Postumus and Flavius seemed disturbed by the sight of it. They stared at the ring as if it were the key that unlocked the cave of Cacus.

“This is the seal of the Raven Brotherhood,” Calpurnia stated, glancing at Libo. “It was found among my brothers’ personal effects and baggage. Cleopatra had the courtesy to return my brothers’ things to my father, but her incompetent servants must have missed this item, otherwise I’m sure it never would have been included.”

Postumus picked up the ring and inspected it for a moment before returning it to the center of the table. “And this is how you concluded the Raven was behind your brothers’ deaths?”

“Yes.”

Postumus seemed inwardly amused for the briefest moment.

“I will expose him, Senator!” Calpurnia snapped. “I will ensure that he suffers just as my brothers suffered.”

“How can you possibly do that, my lady?” Flavius spoke up. “You have nothing more than a ring and a theory.”

“I have spent a long time searching for this man, and I have learned much about him. I know that he is a senator, that he is an older man, that he is wealthy but does not flaunt his wealth,” she looked more intently into Postumus’s eyes with each word. “And that he has a mark, a tattoo upon his left breast, of the same symbol you see on this ring. And I am very near to finding him, Senator. My father’s murder is proof of that. The Raven grows nervous. He foresees his days are numbered.”

After a long moment of silence, Postumus burst into laughter and slapped the table several times. “Well, this explains why your handmaid was hovering outside my window last night. What were you hoping, that she might see me in my disrobed state and discover this mythical tattoo?” He laughed again, and Flavius joined in, but his was more forced. “My lady, this is why women should remain in the villa, and away from the forum, for they are too easily swept up in fantasy! You would, I’m sure, wish me to strip to the waist here and now, to prove your wild claims, but I will not entertain them. They are the ridiculous notions of a child!”

“I don’t believe Lady Calpurnia would accuse you of being the Raven, Senator,” Libo said, glancing at Calpurnia for some kind of affirmation. “Nor do I believe she would spy on you in your quarters. Is that not right, my lady?”

Calpurnia did not answer immediately, and Lucius noticed that, for the first time since the lady had entered the room, she appeared muddled and vulnerable, as if the sudden revelation of this incident distressed her greatly. Finally, she conceded with a nod of her head. “I sent no one to spy on you, Senator.”

“There is no doubting what I saw, Admiral,” Postumus said. “Last night, as I was retiring to my bed, a shadowy figure peered through my portal. It remained just beyond the light of the lantern, but I could see its darkened features staring back at me, outlined by the glimmer of long hair. It remained there as long as one might count to ten. By the time I called my guard, it had vanished into the night. There was nothing outside but the hull and the sea. Whoever it was must have been small and nimble as a gymnast to hang from that ledge and retreat so quickly.”

“Perhaps this intruder is somehow connected to Barca’s attack on Lady Calpurnia,” Libo offered, glancing at Calpurnia as if to seek her opinion, but Calpurnia appeared to be lost in thought, and Libo continued. “No matter who it was, he shall not disturb you again, Senator. I shall see that a marine guard is stationed at the stern deck railing just above your cabin.”

“That will be most kind, Admiral,” Postumus replied, shooting a defiant glance at Calpurnia. “But perhaps the guard will only be necessary for one more night. No doubt, this intruder means to disrupt my mission here, and after tomorrow, he will be too late. My mission will be fulfilled. Which brings us back to the purpose of this meeting.” He looked around the room, and then glanced once at the door. “Tomorrow, at dawn, Antony intends to meet with agents of the Raven on the isle of Basada in the mouth of Brundisium harbor. Marcellus’s mission was to deliver the time and the place for the meeting to the Raven in Thessalonica. We know that Marcellus’s message never reached its destination – thanks to your father, my lady, who so thoroughly saw to that. Thanks to our agent in Rome, we know the time and the place of the meeting. Tomorrow, Antony intends to exchange the promised amount of treasury gold and silver for a signed edict from the Senate declaring him supreme commander over all Roman armies.”

“If this is true,” Libo said quickly, “then we must send a detachment of marines to storm the island. Antony must be captured or killed.”

Postumus shook his head vigorously. “No such action must be attempted, Admiral. As much as I despise the rogue and wish evil upon him, Antony must not be harmed. We will meet with him. We will pretend to be agents of the Raven, and we will pretend to accede to his every wish.”

“To simply make off with the money?” Libo asked incredulously.

“Yes, Admiral. The treasury gold is our objective.”

Libo shifted in his seat. “Antony is among Caesar’s inner circle, Senator. Caesar has appointed him Master of Horse, for the love of Neptune. It seems to me that Fortuna has plac


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ed a golden opportunity in our hands. We should take it. We can strike a powerful blow against the tyrant if Antony is killed. Besides, bartering with that traitor goes against every oath I have sworn to uphold.”

“We won’t be bartering with him,” Postumus said impatiently. “Not candidly, in any event. The Senate cares little what title Antony thinks he has. Tell him whatever he wants to hear, declare him King of Bactria, for all we care, but we must secure that gold. It is the key. Deprive Caesar of the stolen treasury – deprive him of the only thing that keeps the people amenable and his army obedient – and his whole world will crumble around him. Without it, his legions will desert, and this whole nasty war can be brought to a quick conclusion.” Postumus paused for a moment, presumably waiting for any further arguments from Libo, before proceeding. “Now that you have been apprised of the mission, Admiral, I believe it would be advantageous for you to accompany us when we meet with Antony. Your presence will only give us greater credibility in Antony’s eyes. He will think the Raven truly controls the affairs of the Senate and the Roman fleet. I will conduct the negotiations…”

As Postumus continued to outline his plan for the morrow, Lucius studied the faces around the room. Flavius looked anxious, as if he knew that the senator must share this information in order for the plan to succeed, but at the same time wished it to be kept secret. Libo listened intently, but Lucius detected something in his manner, something Lucius’s years as a centurion had made him keen to detect – that moment when a soldier silently nods and accepts the orders of a superior while inwardly he broods and knows he will take the first opportunity to disobey them. Calpurnia also listened, but Lucius could see that something still distracted her thoughts. Marjanita evidently saw it, too, and watched her mistress with great concern. She caught Lucius looking at her, and shot him a poisonous glance, but Lucius only smiled back.

They all had their own agendas, as Lucius had his own.

XXIV

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After the meeting had adjourned, Libo directed Lucius to join him in his quarters. He waved away the servants and the bodyguard, and waited for the screen to close before he spoke.

“I wish to know something, Centurion, once and for all. Come over here.”

Libo directed him over to a table where several scrolls were stacked. One scroll lay in the center of the table, partially open, its weathered paper exposed. But this was not what Libo directed his attention to. Behind the table sat a chair from which hung a sword belt with a sheathed gladius. To Lucius’s surprise, the admiral grabbed the hilt of the sword, drew out the bare steel, and pointed it toward Lucius. As the polished blade glimmered in the dim lamp light, Lucius forced himself to refrain from any defensive move. Something in Libo’s demeanor told him this was not meant as a threat. His deductions were confirmed when Libo tossed the blade onto the table.

“There!” he said, raising his hands. “Here is your chance to strike a blow for Caesar, if that is what you wish. We are alone, and you are my superior at swordplay. Do as you will, Lucius.”

“I do not understand, sir.” Lucius eyed him with a circumspect glance.

“Is my meaning not clear? If you are Caesar’s man, slay me now.”

Lucius never once considered reaching for the blade.

“I need to know that I can trust you, Lucius. That you truly are a man of Rome and not some mindless adherent of the eloquent tyrant. Caesar will surely promise you the heavens, if only you obey him. Is it the promise of riches that decides the loyalties of Lucius Domitius? If so, then he is not the man I thought he was. Either way, I need to know right now, at this moment. Tell me, what kind of a man is Centurion Lucius Domitius?”

“Of course I will not harm you, sir. There is an agreement between us, is there not?”

“Yes, that is the point. You have provided me with the information that I needed, and your services are no longer required. Had my mother not raised a man of honor, I could have you killed now, and then I would not have to bother with my end of the bargain. Postumus told me to do as much. Did you not see him lean over to whisper in my ear as we were leaving?”

Libo then chuckled at the ambiguous look on Lucius’s face.

“Have no fear, Lucius.”

“Then you fully intend to release me?” Lucius asked, his eyes shooting once to the sword, a gesture that deflated the admiral’s smile and appeared to give him a brief moment of pause.

“That is what I wished to discuss with you, Lucius. Is your motivation simply to escape, or is it to do your duty? Most centurions I have encountered in my career, held duty and honor higher than life itself.”

“I’ll wager most of them are dead, sir.”

The admiral sighed heavily. “Then, perhaps I am pursuing the wrong course with you. Now that you know Antony was intentionally sending you to your death, do not the fires of revenge burn within your heart?”

“Antony has had it out for me for some time, sir.” Lucius shrugged. “But if I live long enough, and the fates allow, I will see that he gets his due recompense.”

“Forget the fates, Lucius. What if I can give you that chance tomorrow?”

Lucius looked at him sideways.

“You see, Lucius, it was not clear to me until that meeting tonight what we must do. Postumus, and his allies in the Senate, see this as nothing more than an opportunity to enrich themselves. They will claim they prevented the treasury from falling into the tyrant’s hands, but I suspect that, when this war is over, very little of it will ever make its way back to Rome. You are a man of the campaign, Lucius. You see what is going on here. Disease is rampant throughout my fleet. My captains throw more dead men to the sharks every day. The simple facts are, I am running out of food, and I am desperately short on water. I do not know how much longer I can stay at sea. As if that is not enough, the seas are especially wild this year. At any moment, a sudden storm might decimate my fleet and turn the tables in Antony’s favor. But tomorrow, Lucius – tomorrow I will have Antony under my hand. How can I accept the risk of letting him go? How can I gamble on Postumus’s plan working? And what is the underlying motivation for that plan, if not mere gold?”

“What do you wish me to do, my lord?”

“You know, Lucius, it is strange,” the admiral said, in an amiable tone that instantly put Lucius on his guard. “It truly is strange. Your name meant nothing to me, the first time I heard it. It wasn’t until the clerk called you Lucius Domitius of Spain  that it dawned on me. I had seen your name before, though it was not until late last night, poring over these, that I made the connection.” Libo gestured to the stack of scrolls on the table. “Do you know what these are?”

“No, sir.”

“They are Caesar’s reports from the wars in Gaul and Britannia. You look surprised, Lucius. Yes, I have read them all many times over. It is wise for a commander to study his opponent. I found these particular copies in Bibulus’s own library. Knowing how much he loathed Caesar, I imagine he used them for the same purpose.” Libo then picked up the open scroll and looked it over. “This is the one. You are mentioned by name in it.”

“In there, sir?” Lucius was astonished.

“Where is it now?” The admiral scanned over the lines with one finger, stopping on one passage. “Ah, yes, here it is! From the report on the campaign against the Iceni in Britannia. In his simple prose, Caesar writes The Iceni made a spirited assault upon Caesar’s works, but were repulsed in due order. Centurions Vorenus and Pullo distinguished themselves at the threshold of the praetorian gate where they slew twenty of the enemy single-handedly. Later that same day, a legionary of the Seventh, one Lucius Domitius of Spain, slew the Iceni general with an arrow from a scorpion at a distance of over one hundred paces… and so forth and so on.” He looked up. “You had no idea that you had achieved such renown, did you? That you had earned a line in Caesar’s reports?”

“No, sir.”

“Is it true then?”

“More or less,” Lucius smiled slyly. “That was many years ago. It might have been an enemy knight, not the general. And it’s possible it was eighty paces, not one hundred.”

“Could you do it again?” The admiral was suddenly serious.

“To kill Antony?” Lucius replied, suddenly comprehending what Libo had in mind. “Under a flag of truce?”

Libo sighed heavily, and then sat down in the chair, pausing as if still not convinced of his mindset. “What I ask of you, Lucius, goes against every code I have ever sworn to live by. My personal honor can scarcely bear the thought of it, but I am afraid there is no other way. What are true leaders, if not those who must make decisions when there are no good decisions to be made? What does a man do when all of the choices that remain are bad ones, and every path leads to dishonor? If my name and memory are to be forever tainted by this one act, then so be it. If I am to be branded liar and duplicitous, then it is a small price to save our precious republic.

“It is clear to me that Postumus and whoever else he represents in the Senate have allowed themselves to be distracted from our one, true aim. This negotiation with Antony is more about securing the treasury than it is about saving our republic. I do not know who this Raven is, nor do I care. Whoever he is, he does not have Rome’s best interest at heart, so I fail to see why Postumus and the Senate have latched onto his plot hoping to capitalize on it. In my mind, it is very simple. Why negotiate when we can strike a strategic blow for the republic. The lewd Antony is second only to Caesar. If he dies, both the treasury and the legions will remain in Italy. Antony’s legions will lose heart.”

“Or be emboldened,” Lucius interjected, and then saw the admiral’s uncertain look. “Understand, my lord, I despise Antony for personal reasons, but the common soldiers, they adore him. Soldiers like to be amused, and they find his lewdness very amusing. Not to mention, they’ll regard this as an act of treachery.”

Lucius noticed that the mere mention of the word made the admiral wince perceptibly. He appeared to be undergoing great inner turmoil about his decision.

“It does not matter!” he snapped. “I did not arrange this meeting, nor did any legitimate representative of the Senate! Antony is an enemy of the republic, and when I encounter an enemy, I strike him down without mercy. I need to know only one thing, Centurion Domitius. Are you willing to kill Antony? Are you willing to kill the man who had planned the same for you?”

“I have no love for Antony, sir,” Lucius replied jovially. “I suppose if I don’t kill him now, he’ll try to have me killed again someday.”

“Quite right, Lucius,” Libo said more placidly this time and extended a hand. “We are agreed then. I assure you, my friend, it is for the good of Rome.”

“If you say so, sir.” Lucius somewhat reluctantly took the admiral’s hand. “But it will not be easy. Antony will have a bodyguard with him and, more than likely, many more soldiers nearby. He’s a bastard, but he’s not daft.”

“I have given it long consideration.” The admiral gave him an appreciative glance. Gesturing for Lucius to come closer, he unraveled a chart and laid it out on the table. It showed the port of Brundisium with its triangular harbor, the narrow waterway leading inland where the two land-bound sides of the triangle met, and the dozen tiny sand spits that lay scattered across the seaward side. The largest of these was annotated Basada  – the place where the meeting would take place. Lucius could see that the little islet was a good choice for neutral ground. It was beyond the reach of the towers protecting the approaches to the harbor and would allow either party a clear path of escape should a hasty retreat prove necessary.

“We will land here.” Libo pointed to the seaward side of the islet. “Our delegation will arrive aboard a bireme which will beach at this location. The rest of the fleet will remain on the open sea, but within sight of the harbor.”

“Just one ship, sir? Antony will be sure to bring more than that.”

“To bring more ships close to these sand spits only invites disaster. A wayward wind might beach them or drive them within range of the towers. Besides, our aim is to kill Antony, not to defeat him. Once he is dead, our priority will be to escape.” He said this in a half-hearted tone, as if he knew the prospect of such an escape was slim, as if he had already mentally committed himself to a one-way trip. The reason for keeping the fleet in the open made sense now. This was a suicide mission. It was the one way of preserving Libo’s honor. If he sacrificed his own life in the name of the republic, the treachery of his last act would be forgotten, and perhaps the story of this little assassination mission would find its way onto the lips of the bards and acted out in theaters for generations to come – like the tale of Mucius Scaevola, the Roman patriot of old that tried to assassinate the evil king Lars Porsena. Lucius remembered, once upon a time, when he was a boy in Gades, when his station in life had him on the path of an equite, his Greek tutor had often taught him the tale of Mucius the left-handed one. He knew it well. But if Libo was to play the part of Mucius in tomorrow’s drama, and Antony the part of Lars Porsena, then had Lucius been chosen to play the part of Mucius’s right hand that was ultimately sacrificed to the flames?

“I know this islet well, Centurion,” Libo continued. “It is flat and spans no more than five hundred paces in any direction. Our ship will be beached with its prow high in the air. As you know, there is a hawser hole for handling the anchor through which a man might peer to view the beach. Concealed properly, a scorpion might be mounted there such that the man operating it would not be visible to those on the shore. I will arrange for such a weapon to be mounted and stowed beneath a canvas at this location. I will tell the captain that I am doing this simply as a precaution, in the event of treachery by Antony. I will also command that, once the ship is beached, the crew is to remain clear of the bow so that Antony does not suspect similar such treachery on our part. You, however, will take up position at this vantage point. I do not know how long you will have to align your shot, but you must do it quickly. Can it be done?”

Lucius considered the chart. Many circumstances impossible to predict would have to be accommodating. The wind, the distance to Antony, the size of the hawser hole, the life left in the sinews of the torsion springs, but he detected that the admiral was well-aware of these things. “Assuming the gods favor us with fair weather, then yes, it can be done. I will need to exercise the scorpion tomorrow morning while we are still out to sea, to gauge its strength.”

“Good, Lucius. It will be arranged just as you say. After we land, I will go with the delegation to meet with Antony on the strand. Look for me to touch my brow as if to wipe off the perspiration there. That will be your signal to loose. You must do it quickly, and your dart must fly straight and true. Antony must not rise again, for I may not be close enough to finish him off.”

“Few men struck by a scorpion bolt ever get up again, sir,” Lucius said confidently.

“May Mars make it so tomorrow.” Libo’s face then assumed a solemn expression. He turned to face Lucius and looked him squarely in the eyes, as if to search out his true intentions. “I cannot offer you riches, Lucius, as Caesar or some others might. I will promise, however, that when all of this is over, and the republic is restored, I will do all that I can to see you appointed to a prominent position in her legions – or her navy, if you so choose. I appeal to you, to see this through. I appeal to you as a fellow son of Rome. I appeal to the centurion of the Tenth Legion who pledged to serve the Senate and the people. I appeal to the man who stood on that battlement at the frozen edge of the known world and did his duty. I ask you, Lucius, finally and on your honor, will you see it through?”

XXV

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The crews’ berthing was in the forward sections of Argonaut ’s massive bulk. After leaving Libo’s quarters, Lucius made his way through the dark passages, feeling the fatigue of the day wearing on him. The creak of a hundred tholepins swiveling in their sockets filled the night air as the oars dipped and rose.

Lucius mulled over the problems he had just walked into. He had agreed to Libo’s proposal, more as a way of buying time than anything else. For he knew Libo’s plan to be complete madness. It was reckless and preposterous and would only end up getting all of them killed. Did the admiral think Antony’s men would quietly walk away when they saw their general skewered by a two-foot dart? Libo would probably be the first one killed by Antony’s angry bodyguards, and while that was probably acceptable to the duty-oriented fool, the rest of the delegation and everyone else would soon follow him in death. Lucius knew Antony would never agree to such a meeting without having an ambush waiting. A part of him wished death to them all. Death to Antony for betraying him, and death to the Optimates for the devious behavior he had seen their legions use in Spain. But, deep within him, Lucius knew Libo could not be counted with these. Libo was an upright man, and in spite of his many misguided values, Lucius was fond of him. He did not relish seeing the admiral’s blood mingle with the likes of Antony. There had to be a way of heading off this disastrous plot before it was too late, and they were all corpses on the beach.

Lucius was still contemplating this, and had just reached the berthing area, when a shadow moved at him. He had not noticed the slim figure standing in a dark corner of the passage and he immediately took a defensive stance, preparing to face what he thought must surely be one of Postumus’s assassins.

“No need to startle so, Spanish dog,” a woman’s voice came from the shadows. “I could have killed you easily where you stand. You would have breathed your last before you knew who had slain you.”

The slim figure moved into the lamp light, revealing the stone-like features of Marjanita. She eyed him with something that could only be described as repugnance, but Lucius smiled back at her as he let his guard down.

“That’s the second time you’ve told me that. I’m beginning to think you do not like me.”

“You are a man,” she replied icily, as if no further explanation was necessary.

“Perhaps you should not approach men like that. Had I been armed -”

“I assure you, dog, that I could never be in any danger from you,” she said sharply. “My lady wishes to see you. You will come with me.”

“At this hour?”

“At once!” she snapped, eyeing him with hostility for daring to hesitate to obey her mistress’s command.

Lucius sighed with the weariness he felt and the problem that weighed on his mind, but he gestured for the handmaid to lead the way. He knew she would never take no for an answer, and he knew that he would not truly find any rest in the forest of swinging hammocks that was the crews’ berth, where an assassin might easily hide and slip a knife into his back the moment he closed his eyes.

Lucius was surprised to discover that Calpurnia’s cabin was perhaps the only place on the entire ship that did not reek of either urine, pitch, or foul seawater. It had the aroma of jasmine in the spring. Around the room were scattered the chests, luggage, and appurtenances of a noble woman. Near a small portal, where the cool sea air wafted in brief gusts, an assortment of dresses was hung to dry, having been cleaned using the urine pot in the corner and then scented. Calpurnia’s young, female slaves were proficient at seeing to their lady’s needs under all circumstances, even in the confinements of a ship at sea.

Calpurnia did not rise when he entered. She sat in a chair in the center of the cabin, flanked by both slave girls who hovered over their mistress, combing out strand after strand of the lady’s long hair, preparing it for the next morning when they would braid and dress it in some new and stylish fashion, as they did every day.

“Thank you for coming, Centurion,” she said, in a much more welcoming tone than Marjanita had used. “It is Centurion Domitius, isn’t it?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“I never got the chance to thank you, Centurion, for helping me that night in the hold.”

“It was you that saved me, ma’am, from the lash and execution.”

She smiled cordially, and then glanced at Marjanita and nodded. Without a word passing between them, the handmaid drew the curtain aside at the doorway to verify that no one had followed them, and that no one was eavesdropping. After she was satisfied, she shut the curtain and made a similar inspection of the portal. Finally, she nodded once to Calpurnia.

“I know that you met with Admiral Libo tonight, Centurion,” Calpurnia said. “And I know what he asked you to do.”

“If you know that, my lady,” Lucius answered with a grin, “Then you must be a fairy, for the admiral and I were all alone.”

“He asked you to kill Antony. He asked you to do it during the meeting tomorrow using a missile thrower from a concealed position on the vessel that is to convey the delegation to the shore.”

Lucius marveled. “How could you know that, ma’am? I’m certain we were alone.”

“Your place is to answer questions, dog!” the handmaid snapped.

“No, Marjanita,” Calpurnia waved her off with a single raised hand. “This man is a centurion of Rome, and he should be treated, and addressed, with the courtesies due his valiant rank.”

“Thank you, my lady,” Lucius bowed appreciatively to Calpurnia, and then shot Marjanita an impishly triumphant glance.

“I cannot tell you how I know these things,” Calpurnia continued, “I will just tell you that my late father, in spite of his many faults, had several subordinates that were steadfastly loyal to him. Those men are now loyal to me. But, even without their intelligence, I might have guessed Libo’s course of action. He is woefully predictable – a dreamer, an idealist, who will never survive the schemes of the senators and the politicians.”

“I would not know about that, my lady.”

“No, I suppose not. But you did hear me talk of the Raven this evening. You heard the death and destruction he has enacted, and will continue to enact until Rome is in his hands.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m not sure I followed all of it.”

“Then let me put it plainly to you. The man called the Raven is the greatest threat Rome has faced since the days of Marius and Sulla. He controls from the shadows, buying off senators, hiring assassins, appointing generals, governors, even town magistrates. I know of at least two major allies of Rome that have his agents lurking within their high council. He is setting the stage meticulously, Centurion, using the distraction of this civil war to make some of his boldest moves. One day, we shall awake to a new Rome, controlled like a puppet, with the Raven pulling the strings.”

“I’ve known a few men with such ambitions, my lady.”

“Oh, Caesar does not compare to the Raven, Centurion. Caesar does not have the resources to pull off such a plan. As much as I dislike the tyrant, for all his corruption and thirst for power, he does have traces of a code of honor. Caesar has often shown clemency to his enemies. The Raven does not. He shows no mercy to those that lay between him and his plans. They are quickly murdered, regardless of their merits or their station. Like my brothers. Like my father.”

Lucius briefly considered telling her how her father, too, was a bloody murderer who had roasted thirty ships full of legionaries, but he refrained.

“I have been searching for the Raven for a long time, Centurion, and now that I have discovered him, I do not intend to let him get away.”

“You have found this man, ma’am?”

“Is it not obvious?” she said matter-of-factly. “Senator Postumus is the Raven. It is as clear to me as the morning sun. He tried to have us murdered because we were the only ones that might have interfered with his planned meeting with Antony. He wanted you eliminated because you were the only survivor of the orange-flagged ship, and thus might have had knowledge that you could impart to Libo, which you did. He would have preferred not to have included Libo in the proceedings tomorrow. But now he has no choice. He wanted me eliminated simply because of my association with my father. My presence on board was unexpected, and he knew that I already eyed him with suspicion over my father’s death. Now, he must somehow meet with Antony and still deal with us before we return to Greece. Be assured, Centurion, neither you nor I will reach Greece alive. He will make sure of that. Libo, himself, is in danger, though he is too stupid to know it.”

Lucius was confused. “But I thought you had arranged the meeting with Antony, my lady.”

“Of course, I did,” she said, as if it were obvious. “To flush the Raven out. And it has worked perfectly.” She continued after she saw the perplexed expression on Lucius’s face. “The message Antony received from the Raven was crafted by me as a ploy to draw the Raven out. I sealed the letter using the ring found with my brothers’ personal effects. That was the message Marjanita was carrying that night when you conveyed her to Antony’s chamber. He thought, and presumably still thinks, it came from the Raven himself. I knew that the true Raven would get wind of it, for his agents are everywhere, even among Antony’s own advisors, I suspect. His curiosity over who had sent the message would bring him to the surface, especially when he realized the sum of money involved. He would have no choice but to intercept Antony’s messenger, who had intended on delivering the time and place for the meeting to a fictitious agent of the Senate in Thessalonica. The true Raven could not gamble on that message ever reaching the Senate. My plan has worked perfectly – aside from the tragedy of my poor father’s murder, which unfortunately I did not foresee. Postumus, no doubt, thought the false message was my father’s doing and had him murdered. Now that he believes the instigator of the plot has been eliminated, he has adopted the plot as his own and plans to see it to its end. How can he not, with half of Caesar’s army and half of the treasury at stake?”

It was starting to make sense to Lucius now, though he still did not quite understand the full scope of it. The secret message carried on Marcellus’s dying lips had never been intended to reach anyone. It had been a lure, nothing more. The Raven – presumably Senator Postumus – had taken the bait, and now that Calpurnia had identified him…what would she do? Expose him to the exiled Senate? What purpose could that serve? Certainly, Postumus had enough allies there to disparage any of her accusations. Moreover, what proof did she have that any of it was true? It was all hearsay. Would she have gone to such means if she simply planned on disgracing the Raven? If not, then what was her plan? The answer dawned on him just as she started to speak again, as did the purpose of her summons.

“You must kill Postumus tomorrow!” she said abruptly. “Not Antony. Antony is nothing. Postumus is the real threat.”

So this had been her plan all along, Lucius concluded, to discover who the Raven was simply to have him killed. The sole purpose of this elaborate plot was to settle the score in a blood feud – to kill the man responsible for her brothers’ murders.

“My family is wealthy, Centurion,” she went on. “If you do this, I will see to it that your needs are provided for. You will never want for money. You may retire any place you like. Go back to Spain, if you wish. My family owns villas in many provinces. Choose whichever one you like, and live out your days as an equite.” When Lucius did not answer immediately, she added, “Would the promise of such a reward entice you, Centurion?”

“The reward, yes,” Lucius replied indifferently. “But not the promise, my lady. A man needs something he can taste and feel.”

This reply incensed Marjanita, who stepped forward and said hotly, "Lady Calpurnia has made you an offer, Spanish dog! You dare haggle with her like some common merchant? You will do her bidding or see your entrails on this very floor." Her hand went to the hilt of a small sheathed blade. The sheath was tucked into a wide sash that conformed tightly around her slim waist, allowing Lucius to see the sinister outline of the hand-length, needle-like blade.

Calpurnia raised her hand to motion her back. "No, Marjanita. Put your weapon away. This centurion has come here in friendship. He is a loyal soldier of Rome, an


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d I was wrong to insult his honor so. Perhaps he is one of those soldiers whose reward comes simply in the execution of his duties."

"I've seldom come across one of those, my lady," Lucius said grinning. "Most ended up on the end of a Gallic spear. A soldier’s got to have a reason to fight, just as a man must have a reason to live."

"Then if gold and land will not lure you, perhaps payment of another sort might?" Calpurnia cut her eyes to the two female slaves brushing her hair in long strokes, then looked back at Lucius. "The oar is wearisome, I am sure, and like the sea stirs the fires of desire in most men. Perhaps something could be arranged?"

Lucius smiled sportingly. "Perhaps, my lady."

"I am glad we have come to an understanding. Do what I ask, and when we return to port, you shall have the most expensive lady of the night in all Corcyra."

Lucius frowned overtly. "Life is so uncertain, my lady. Only the gods can make promises of things yet to come."

"I see." Calpurnia seemed to consider for a moment before her eyes wandered to the two slaves beside her. "Lila and Cora are both skilled in many arts. They are striking, wouldn’t you say?" She then turned abruptly to the two women and commanded, "Both of you, disrobe before this man."

Neither woman moved. Their faces stared at Lucius in horror, both at the command and the prospect of where it would lead.

"Please, no, my lady," the one called Cora began to plead.

Calpurnia’s face turned red at the show of disobedience. In an instant, Marjanita was there and struck Cora across the face with her open palm. "Stop your sniveling!” she demanded. “Your mistress has given you an order!"

But when, still, neither woman complied, the exasperated handmaid took hold of the silk sashes at their waists and roughly towed them over to face Lucius. Marjanita was lithe in form, but the lean, muscled body Lucius had seen glistening in the moonlight that night concealed great strength. The two slaves were slightly taller and had larger hips than she, but she handled them both with little effort. In several quick jerking motions, she loosened the sashes and the ties of their gowns and let the unrestrained dresses fall into heaps around their feet. She then gruffly unfurled their tightly wound hair, letting the tresses fall twirling beyond their pale shoulders to brush past their quivering breasts.

"There, Spaniard!" Marjanita said brusquely. "Choose and be done with it!"

Both slaves averted their eyes and would not look at him as their naked bodies stood hardly an arm's length away. The one called Cora, who had been so brutally handled by the handmaid, had tears in her eyes. The sight of her instantly stirred painful memories within Lucius – memories of his own mother and sister, who had been raped and murdered by a band of ravaging men. Had they, too, looked this way before their captors?

"I await your decision, Centurion," Calpurnia said. "Are they not lovely? Would not one or both of them quench the unfulfilled desires that burn within a man? You may satisfy your lust in any way you wish."

At the mention of that, Cora seemed to nearly faint on her feet. But Marjanita quickly scolded her and took up her chin in her hand, forcing her to face forward.

"Look at him, girl!" she demanded.

"Well?" Calpurnia said to Lucius, her tone laced with the first tinge of impatience.

"Both are indeed beautiful. I'll give you that, my lady," Lucius finally replied. "But I'm afraid neither one interests me."

Calpurnia pressed her lips together in frustration for a moment, and then her eyes grew suddenly wide. "You will not have me, Centurion!"

"No, my lady, with respect, not you either." Lucius smiled slyly and then looked away from Calpurnia, his eyes resting squarely on Marjanita.

It took a moment before the handmaid appeared to realize that she had now become the focus of her mistress and the amused gaze of the centurion. For the space of a heartbeat her stern face lost all complexion.

"Me?" she exclaimed, aghast.

"It appears the centurion desires you, Marjanita," Calpurnia said evenly.

"Never, my lady!" She replied hotly. "I would sooner slice his balls off!"

Lucius laughed out loud. "That might affect my aim tomorrow. I'll need to be in fine form, my lady, if I'm to be sure of my shot."

Marjanita was fixed upon her mistress, her face set in disbelief. "My lady, pray tell me you are not considering this!"

But Calpurnia seemed unfazed by the centurion's proposition, and little concerned for the price that her handmaid would have to pay. "Come now," she said impassively. "We have little time for this. You will see to the centurion’s needs, and then he will do what I have asked of him." She gestured for the two slaves to put their clothes back on. When they had finished dressing under the incredulous eyes of Marjanita, Calpurnia rose from the chair. “Cora and Lila, I cannot sleep tonight. I wish to take a stroll on deck in the moonlight. The fresh air may calm my nerves. Both of you will accompany me.”

The slave women nodded, one of them placing a heavy cloak around Calpurnia’s shoulders while the other gathered their own cloaks.

While Marjanita gaped at her mistress in dumbfounded astonishment, Calpurnia turned to Lucius. “We shall return at the changing of the watch. That should give you both – ample time.”

Lucius looked at the wide-eyed Marjanita and then back at Calpurnia. “I suppose so, ma’am.”

“Entertain him as he wishes,” Calpurnia directed Marjanita. “That is an order.”

“But, my lady, this thing…I do not know how to…” her voice trailed off and the venom left her face, as if her mistress had betrayed her.

“He will instruct you.” Calpurnia consoled her, and then looked Lucius up and down. “Do not worry. I am sure he is a veteran at many things.”

XXVI

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The morning sun broke over the low bank of clouds far out to sea and shed its rays on the small islands lining the approaches to Brundisium’s harbor. The sea was relatively calm this day, and the surf broke gently along the tiny strips of white sand and rock. In the distance, along the coastal hills at the apex of the harbor, the rooftops of the town gleamed in many different hues of red. Those in the town, stepping out onto their terraces that morning, would see a vast armada sitting well out to sea. They would also see a single ship, with sails furled, approaching the northern-most of the tiny islands under oars. Pushing out from the harbor side, they would see five small galleys heading for the same island, their oars leaving tiny foamy disturbances on the water behind them.

From the seaward side of the island, the single warship drove on amidst the rollers. She was the Faun  - a nimble, one hundred-foot galley of eighty oars in two banks with a single weather deck and a rower deck below. When she had closed sufficiently with the shore, sailors leapt from her bows into the waist deep froth and began securing a pair of anchors. A rope ladder was dropped over the side, and two scores of men debarked, most of them marines with shields slung on their backs. The marines came to a halt once they reached dry ground, but three others who were with them continued on, plodding through the powdery sand laced with seashells and bird droppings.

At the same time, the five ships from the harbor landed on the opposite side of the island. A similar sized retinue of armored legionaries also stopped at the water’s edge, allowing their delegation of three to proceed to the meeting spot at the island’s center.

Libo waited with Postumus and Flavius while the other delegation advanced. The highest point on the island was scarcely the height of a man above sea level, so he was able to observe the approaching party from the moment they had debarked. He quickly identified Antony among the three men, his large stature and prominent forehead setting him apart from the others nearly as much as the polished bronze corselet glimmering beneath his billowing scarlet cloak. The Caesarian general had a commanding presence about him, marching briskly several paces ahead of the two men accompanying him. He wore no helmet, allowing Libo to see a visible measure of trepidation in his eyes as they scanned the low dunes around him, as if treachery lurked beneath the sand itself.

Libo fidgeted internally over this opportune moment while Antony was in the open, but he knew the distance to the Faun  was far too great. Not even Centurion Domitius, whom Libo prayed was at this moment watching from the scorpion hidden beneath the canvas shroud on the Faun’s  bow, could hope to hit Antony from that range. He would need to wait until Antony was closer, and he wished to encourage him to come as close as possible.

With this in mind, Libo forced a warm smile and raised a hand in greeting. "Salutations and blessings upon you, Marcus Antonius."

Antony immediately stopped in his tracks, still a good twenty paces away, his face showing misgivings over the overtly friendly greeting, and Libo inwardly cursed himself for his own foolish error. Even more problematic were Antony’s attendants. While one was a blonde-haired, pasty white, clerical-looking type who wore an ill-fitting mail shirt over his pot-bellied torso, the other was a daunting knight of middle age who was well-armed and wore a glimmering bronze helmet with a flaring green plume. This grim-faced warrior had taken up a position between the two groups such that any missile aimed at his general would be blocked by his large frame.

Antony seemed dismissive of Libo's salute. The leery-eyed general did not acknowledge him in the least, but smiled curtly at Postumus as if the senator were the only one worthy to address him.

"Postumus, my old friend," Antony said, a bit too genially. "I must admit, I'm not surprised to find you involved in all this. You always were a scheming old son of a whore."

Postumus looked back at him contemptuously. "No less surprised than I to find you standing here today, a man so devoid of principle that he would cheerfully sell out his master for his own personal gain."

At this, Antony seemed to check himself, as if choking back the response that was on his lips. After a smile that appeared much more genuine, he spread his palms wide. "Come, come. These long-standing differences between us need not hamper this arrangement. There is no need for insults. Especially after the generous offer you have extended me. I am both honored and touched, Senator.”

"I assure you, neither the offer nor the honor came from me,” Postumus said, still bridling. “I come to you today only at the bidding of the man I serve. Believe me, I argued that he could have gotten you for much less."

The animation left Antony's features, as a player removes a mask. He regarded the senator coolly as he spoke through gritted teeth. "Take assurance, Postumus, that when all of this is over, and you tragically number among the fallen of this war, I shall personally see that your severed cock is delivered to your widow that she might honor it at the next Liberalia."

“Most kind,” Postumus replied tersely. “Might I also assure you that -”

"Please, gentlemen!" Libo said, stepping between them. "This is senseless."

"Who is this upstart, Postumus?" Antony asked. “We were just getting started.”

Postumus sighed. "This is Scribonius Libo. He commands the fleet that now blockades your coast."

"Ah, yes, Bibulus's replacement. I remember you, now.” Antony’s tone was rife with unveiled condescension. "Pity to hear about old Bibulus. But, perhaps he got what was coming to him. The crazy bastard, burning my poor ships and soldiers like that. He always was a few rods shy of a fasces.”

Libo nodded cordially, but said nothing, wishing that he could give the signal that would silence the traitor’s overconfident tongue, but still the green-plumed knight stood in the path.

Flavius leaned toward Postumus and said quietly. “Shall we proceed with the business at hand, Senator?”

“I think that would be wise, General,” Antony’s aide whispered, almost inaudibly.

Postumus looked at Antony. “You know who we represent?”

“Yes,” Antony replied. “I know who you claim to represent. But questions remain.”

“Then let this settle those questions.” Postumus held up the ring bearing the raven signet and tossed it into the sand at Antony’s feet.

The blonde aide leaned over to retrieve it, and studied it intently, before turning to Antony and nodding. “It is authentic, General.”

“My, my,” Antony said, shaking his head and glancing impishly from Libo to Postumus. “Had I not seen it, I would not have believed it. The Senate-in-exile and the fleet both on the Raven’s leash. I suppose Pompey’s army is as well, eh?”

“I think that my presence here, along with Admiral Libo, confirms that,” answered Postumus.

“Yes, but who is the Raven? That is the most intriguing question of all. Is it you, Postumus, my old chum?”

The senator did not blink. “An agreement has been made. We are here to receive the treasury gold from you. I assume you have brought it with you.”

Antony glanced over his shoulder to the beached ships behind him. Four of the craft were mastless galleys, their decks shaded by bright green canvas awnings, beneath which stack upon stack of crates were visible.

“It’s all there,” Antony said smiling.

“Of course, but we wish to inspect it, all the same.”

“You are welcome to do so.”

Antony gestured to the blonde aide. Postumus did the same to Flavius, and then both aides walked together to the moored galleys, where planks were run out to receive them. While Antony and Postumus remained on the beach staring at one another, Libo watched the adjutants in the distance. They pulled open one crate after another, inspecting the contents of each. Both men appeared to be immersed in deep conversation, and Libo found that odd.

What could they be discussing at such great lengths? Was it possible they were old acquaintances? Had they known each other prior to the war?

But Libo’s attention was drawn away from these thoughts when the knight moved closer to Antony to whisper something in Antony’s ear. He had moved just enough to yield a clear path between the Faun  and Antony. As much as Libo desperately wished to give the signal and send the missile on its deadly flight to end the life of the despicable traitor, he hesitated. There was something going on here, and he wanted to know more. Postumus’s behavior was unsettling to Libo. It went beyond play-acting. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The senator appeared much too natural in his discourse, his demeanor too comfortable, like that of the two aides who now returned still talking in low tones.

The next moment, the opportunity had passed. The knight had returned to his former position, and the shot was again obstructed.

“It appears to be the agreed upon sum, my lord,” Flavius reported to senator with a cunning glance.

“Excellent!” Postumus replied, his face adorned with the first genuine smile Libo had ever seen there.

“You do realize, my old friend,” Antony butted in, “the gold remains with me until I have been instated as commander of the Optimates forces, and Pompey deposed?”

“I do not have such a decree in my hand,” Postumus stated matter-of-factly. “If I did, you would surely suspect it to be a fabrication. I do, however, have this, bearing the Raven’s own mark.”

Postumus took a small scroll from his belt and handed it to Antony’s aide, who in turn gave it to Antony.

“And what in Juno’s arse is this?” Antony held the document between two fingers as if it reeked.

“A pledge, in writing, from the Raven, vowing that you will be given command of the armies, and that such a pronouncement will be made, once this gold arrives safely in Corcyra.”

Antony laughed out loud, but then stopped quite abruptly, his eyes turning sinister as they glared back at Postumus. “Never! Not one ounce. Not one sesterces will you have, until such a decree is in my hand and I receive word from my own trusted agents in Epirus that Pompey’s army has been placed under my command. Those are my conditions, Senator! Now drag your aged carcass back aboard your ship, and take that word to your master. And tell him, next time, if he wishes for more than the severed heads of his emissaries to return, then he had better not extend such an insulting offer!”

“Be careful, Antony,” the senator said evenly. “Consider well your situation. The Rhodian fleet has been destroyed. Libo’s fleet blocks your passage. You cannot combine with Caesar. You sit in Italy with four legions amongst a populous that is, at best, docile, if not prepared to take up arms against you should Pompey prevail in the coming battle. Should you somehow manage to cross the sea and join with Caesar, Pompey will still outnumber you both in short order. And what would you gain by such an act? The honor of being a lap dog to Caesar? Hear me, Antony. I am offering you the dictatorship, to be the face behind the Raven, given free reign over the empire, your power and authority nearly absolute.”

“Nearly?”

“There will, of course, be reasonable limits established, for you will still ultimately answer to the Raven. But, he will remain in the shadows. For all intents and purposes, you will be the first man in Rome. It will all be very official and made legal by an arranged vote of the assemblies. You will be perceived as the savior of Rome, the man who healed our fractured empire and united it once again.”

“I still hear nothing but promises, Senator,” Antony said sourly.

“We, of course, anticipated your reluctance to part with the gold before such an order is officially announced. Thus, I am prepared to be your guest until that time arrives.”

“My hostage?”

“If that is how you wish to phrase it. My aide, Flavius, will remain with the gold and see that it reaches Corcyra safely. My master will then arrange for the Senate to issue a decree making you imperator over all Optimates armies.”

Antony’s face softened. “Perhaps I might be persuaded, but let me be absolutely clear, Postumus. Should that decree not reach my ears by week’s end, you will die a most horrible death.”

“I am well acquainted with your reputation for brutality. Given that, and knowing that you and I have never seen eye-to-eye, is it not further proof that I speak the truth? Would I place myself at your mercy, if I did not believe everything will transpire just as I have promised?”

“So, you would be my guest,” Antony said to himself, rubbing his chin and leaning in to listen to the whispers of his aide.

“Your guest,” Postumus completed his thought, “and an ambassador of sorts, to represent the Raven on your inner council.”

“Sounds smothering,” Antony said cynically.

“Then how does this sound? Once you are instated as the commander of the Optimates armies, your first duty will be to march your legions to Rome, where you will assert supreme control. When Caesar’s army hears of this, they will desert in droves, and Caesar will be hunted down and killed like a common outlaw. Pompey will be your subordinate, as will all other commanders in the field. The exiled Senate will return to Rome, minus a few that will meet with tragic accidents on the long journey from Thessalonica. Then you, Antony – the father of a new Rome – will convene a new Senate stocked afresh with the clientele of the Raven and your own staunchest supporters…”

Libo’s stomach turned in revulsion while Postumus explained the elaborate plan. The senator was not merely concocting a story to convince Antony to part with the treasury money. This was real. As the scheme grew more and more intricate, and terrifyingly made logical sense, Libo became more and more certain of it. This was what Postumus had intended all along. He was, indeed, an agent of the Raven, and was carrying on the plan his master had conceived and now appeared to be close to successful completion. Libo half wanted to draw his sword and plant it in the senator’s gut before the traitor could say another word, but he refrained, content in the knowledge that once Antony lay dead in the sand, the senator’s plan would be foiled. He was sure now, more than ever, that he was doing the right thing, the noble thing, for how could he concern himself with honor when dealing with such vermin as these?

It then occurred to him that Postumus would certainly have a plan for him, too. Did an assassin’s blade await him aboard the flagship? Surely it must, should he in any way obstruct the conveyance of the gold to Corcyra. Postumus knew he would never go along with such a scheme. The problem was Antony’s knight, who still stood in the path between Antony and the bireme. Should he chance it? Should he simply wipe his brow now, and let the fates decide – for he would never allow Postumus to leave with Antony. Both traitors must not leave this island alive. He had to count on the centurion to take care of Antony, then it would be his turn to act. Was Flavius close enough to interfere before Libo could drive his blade into Postumus’s back?

Antony was glancing at all three of them as he listened to his rotund aide talking in his ear. When the aide finished, Antony nodded and stepped forward, extending his right hand.

“Perhaps you and I got off to a poor start, my dear Postumus.” Antony’s demeanor had changed considerably. There was trust and acceptance in the warm smile that now crossed his face. “I believe we have come to an agreement. Shall we press hands on the bargain?”

The two men stepped toward each other to shake hands. This was the moment, Libo thought. Antony had moved in front of the knight, and now stood unobstructed. He was in the clear.

Libo counted to five, hoping it would be enough time for Lucius to adjust his aim. Then, with a single hand that he fought to keep from trembling, Libo touched his brow.

The extended bare arms of Antony and Postumus stopped just short of joining – as both were suddenly spattered red by a shower of fresh blood.

XXVII

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Lucius watched from his concealed perch on the Faun’s  high prow as the two delegations met on the gleaming sand stretching out before him. The sinister-looking, man-sized artillery piece on which he now rested his chin was ready to loose, torqued to its full strength, its two-foot, iron-tipped bolt carefully aimed to account for both wind and distance. Now he waited for Libo’s signal. He felt sure his shot would run true, providing a rogue gust did not sweep across the islet at the wrong moment. He had spent the early morning hours assessing the scorpion’s power, loosing three missiles into the sea under the watchful eyes of the Faun’s  captain, as the little ship sat alongside the Argonaut  waiting for the delegation to transfer on board. Lucius had been pleased to discover that the scorpion was in prime condition. The torsion springs were made from the finest strands of women’s hair, and the energy released by the stout twisted cords was consistent between shots.

The morning had gone according to plan. Once the delegation had gone ashore, Lucius had prepared the weapon under the canvas shroud. Aside from a few curious glances, the sailors had ignored him, the captain directing most of them to linger in the stern. The captain eyed Lucius suspiciously, but he did not interfere, undoubtedly following instructions given him by Libo prior to going ashore.

Everything had gone according to plan, except for one unexpected turn of events.

From his crouched position, Lucius looked over his shoulder to see that Marjanita was still there, crouching only a few paces away, also hidden from the shore by the ship’s bulwark. She had appeared on deck, quite suddenly after the delegation had gone ashore, and Lucius could only assume she had stowed away belowdecks. Her presence was unexpected, but Lucius knew exactly why she was here. Undoubtedly, Calpurnia had sent the she-warrior handmaiden to ensure that Lucius kept his end of the deal. The dagger tucked into the handmaid’s sash was distinctly visible, and was most likely intended for his throat, should his bolt not fly true and snuff the life out of Postumus as agreed. Of course, it was possible the wicked weapon was meant for him in either case. Calpurnia had certainly been around Roman politics long enough to know that when one plotted a murder, one must also plot the murder of the assassin.

At first, Lucius had found it odd that the bireme’s captain had seemed unalarmed by Marjanita’s presence, allowing her to shadow Lucius’s every move. But then it occurred to him that Calpurnia probably had more allies in the fleet than did Libo. This may even be the very vessel Marjanita had visited that night, back in Corcyra, when Lucius had seen her naked form climb aboard.

Lucius smiled playfully at her now before turning his attention back to the cluster of men on the beach. Her face still contained something bordering between loathing and hatred whenever she met his gaze, but there was something tempered about her expression now – for, only a few hours ago, they had lain in each other’s arms, their mingled forms glimmering with perspiration in the dim lamplight. It had been a wild experience, and perhaps he had gotten a little more than he had bargained for. Once left alone in the cabin, Marjanita’s initial reluctance had seemed to give way to total acceptance. In the blink of an eye, she had tossed away her own clothing, and then proceeded to disrobe Lucius just as abruptly. At first, he thought she simply wished to get the whole foul business over and done with. But then, much to his surprise, she came at him with a carnal fury in her eyes, pouncing upon him as a ravenous tigress leaps on her prey. Lucius was completely thunderstruck as she pressed her lips to his, her athletic body forcing him to the deck with a ferocity more suited to a wrestling match, and he soon began to wonder whose fulfillment was truly being addressed. She attacked him as one deprived of food might lay into a table of baked meats, never once stopping, even as the pipes announced the changing of the watch. The ship might have driven into a cyclone for all Lucius could tell, so intense was the alacrity of her passion, her flat stomach and small breasts heaving such as he had only seen in the vivacious dances of the most primitive barbarian tribes. He could still feel the marks on his chest and biceps left by her clawing fingernails. The whole thing had been hysterical, animalistic, barbaric, but there had been one moment, after her spent body had collapsed onto his, her cheek resting upon his chest, when she had reached up with a single trembling hand and had gently caressed his unshaven face. It had been, perhaps, the only affectionate touch of the whole encounter, but there had been something especially gentle about it, some measure of tenderness that went beyond simple lust. In that instant, Lucius had felt as though she were reliving a cherished moment from her distant and all but vanished past, when she had held a man from her native land, a man of the far away East whom she had loved and would never see again.

But now, she waited to kill Lucius, and perhaps that was the hesitation he detected on her face. Of course, she would have to do it, for Lucius did not intend to kill Postumus. Should he assassinate a senator of Rome in such a manner, his life would be forfeit. Whether Rome was ruled by Caesar or the Senate, he would never be able to escape such a tarnish. At the same time, he thought killing Antony, Caesar’s favorite lieutenant, an equally self-destructive solution. Calpurnia and Libo had each planned well in choosing him as their assassin, for he was expendable.

He watched now as the tall senator and the equally tall Antony appeared deep in discussion, with Libo and the aides looking on. The squad of marines milling about on the beach, just below the Faun’s  prow, held their shields and javelins nonchalantly, only half-paying attention. Most appeared more concerned with dodging the incessant rain of droppings from a mass of seagulls flapping overhead. Five hundred yards away, Antony’s legionaries on the far side of the little islet looked to be similarly distracted.

The conference between the great men appeared to be coming to a head now. Antony was approaching Postumus, the bastard brandishing a smile on that ape-browed face of his.

Lucius selected his target carefully. It was a clear shot, with no obstructions. There was no way he could miss. He watched Libo’s hand and waited for the signal. Libo looked nervous, or enraged, Lucius could not tell which, and he was just beginning to wonder if the admiral was ever going to give the signal, when suddenly the admiral’s hand came up and touched his brow.

A heartbeat later, Lucius pulled the pin and the engine recoiled, flinging the d


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eadly missile into the air. Lucius watched the flight of the bolt to see if he had judged the wind correctly, and he had. The missile was flying directly where he had aimed it.

A silent satisfaction came over him as the shaft struck its target squarely in the torso, only to be surpassed by the satisfaction he felt next as all Hades broke out on the tranquil little islet.

XXVIII

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Both delegations turned to discover the source of the blood, for neither Postumus nor Antony were injured. They gaped in horror at the gory point of the shaft that now protruded from Flavius’s abdomen. Flavius’s face was white with disbelief as a torrent of red streamed down his legs to be picked up by the wind and sprayed in the direction of Antony and Postumus. He finally fell to the ground, writhing grotesquely, the firmly lodged shaft repeatedly beating against the sand with every twist of his body. Within moments, the lifeblood had ebbed and his form went motionless, locked in an attitude of agony.

A collage of confused expressions crossed every open-mouthed face as each man tried to discern from which side the missile had come and for whom it was meant. Antony immediately backed away, as did Postumus, each suspecting deceit on the part of the other. Antony paused for a moment, shooting Postumus and Libo an irritated look before turning on his heel to leave.

“There is treachery here, gentlemen,” Antony casually called over his shoulder as he departed. “But you shall pay for it. Yes, you shall pay for it.”

Any chance that Libo might have salvaged the plan by driving his own blade into Antony’s heart vanished in that moment, as the green-plumed knight drew a sword and placed himself between Libo and the retiring general.

“What in Jupiter’s name just happened, Admiral?” Postumus snarled, obviously infuriated as he glanced disbelievingly at Flavius’s bloody corpse.

But Libo did not answer and shouted for the two score marines to come to them. The band clattered across the sand and quickly formed a ragged line in front of their commander. There were enough of them to overpower Antony’s small squad of legionaries. If they hurried, they might stop Antony from escaping, and perhaps the treasure craft, too.

On the cusp of ordering his men to pursue, Libo stopped when one of the marines pointed behind him in open-jawed amazement, and exclaimed, “Mother of Juno!”

Libo wheeled around to see that the treasury gold was not the only thing Antony’s flotilla had brought to the little island. Before his eyes, the decks came alive as the canvas shades were thrown back revealing fully armed troops packed tightly into each vessel. Whether Antony had intended them for some trickery of his own, or simply as a contingency should the meeting go awry, there was no way to know, but he had certainly brought enough men to tip the balance decidedly in his favor. At least two centuries began pouring off the craft and wading through the foam – legionary foot-soldiers bearing shields and javelins, and archer auxiliaries holding staves and quivers high above their heads. As the stream of warriors reached the dry sand, they quickly formed into lines, and it was evident that they intended more than just defense.

“I asked you a question, Admiral!” Postumus demanded.

Libo ignored him, urgently scanning the mass of gleaming helmets and shields, seeking out Antony, but the general was nowhere in sight. The treasure ships had already begun to push off, their bows swinging around to head for the safety of the inner harbor. Perhaps Antony had already boarded one of these and was making good his escape. Libo eyed the unwieldy craft with a revulsion that was only matched by his own frustration. In spite of shedding the weight of so many men and arms, the vessels were still low in the water, loaded down with gold and silver. It would take some time for them to pull across the harbor. He reckoned he had one chance to stop them – but only if he moved quickly.

He reached out and grabbed a nearby marine.

"Return to the Faun ! Tell the captain he is not to wait for us. He is to get underway without delay. He is to pursue those vessels." He pointed at the treasure ships shoving off from the other side of the island. "He must sink them at all hazards! Understood?"

The marine nodded and sprinted off in a stir of powdery sand.

"Have you gone mad, Admiral?" Postumus gaped incredulously. "We cannot stand against Antony’s troops!”

Libo watched the Faun  and waited as the marine leapt from the shallow surf to reach the rope ladder and surmount the bulwark. Moments later, sailors bearing axes appeared on the bow and immediately began hacking away the anchor cables. Satisfied with this, Libo finally turned to the fuming Postumus.

"Draw your sword, Senator! I will not let Antony see us fleeing like some common rabble. We will stand and fight. Should the fates demand it, we shall die in this place! Now arm yourself, for they are coming!"

Still glowering, Postumus grudgingly unsheathed his own sword and took up a position behind the line of marines beside Libo. It had been many years since the aging senator had stood in the forefront of battle, and he held the weapon as awkwardly as a cithara player might hold a cornu. Libo found amusement in this, but his jollity was short-lived. A battle cry erupted from the century of legionaries, and the bristling formation began to advance. They marched deliberately and in perfect step, a line of white shields four ranks deep, gliding across the sand like a great marble slab.

Libo knew that his marines were hopelessly outnumbered. The Faun  had drifted out from the shore now, and with her any hope of escape. The realization of this seemed to overtake his men at that same moment as one helmet after another turned to catch a fleeting glance at the bobbing bireme. But their thoughts were abruptly broken by the hiss of javelins in the air. The legionaries had advanced to within throwing range, and now the six-foot pila came down all around Libo’s men, some sticking upright in the sand, some penetrating shields, a few drawing blood. Several of the marines plucked the javelins from the ground and hurled them back at the enemy formation. But, strangely, after casting the first volley, the legionaries halted and threw no more, nor did they advance. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder, holding their remaining javelins behind their immense shields.

Libo found this behavior puzzling, but it afforded him a moment to study the unblemished faces staring back at him. The legionaries were young, probably fresh recruits from the Italian countryside, and probably only a few months in the ranks. They were, however, well-drilled and drew a sharp contrast to his own ragged line of warriors. His marines were sea-faring men, and though that life inherited its own forms of discipline, the uniformity that was common among the legions was unknown to them. They were individuals, used to fighting singly or in small groups as was often called for in boarding actions or raiding parties. They bore shields of varying size and nearly every kind of weapon, most more befitting a melee within the confines of a few feet of deck planking than an open, pitched battle on land.

The marines jeered at the stopped century, calling them runts, cursing them, and demanding they come taste the steel of real warriors. It was more out of exasperation than true arrogance. In spite of their bravado, Libo suspected they knew as well as he that they did not stand a chance against the disciplined legionaries whose battle-proven formations could roll over them without a second thought. Libo still wondered why the legionaries had stopped, but the reason soon became clear.

A squat centurion with a cross-plumed helmet appeared in the front rank and shouted a command over his shoulder. Instantly, the ranks of legionaries knelt in place, revealing the century of archers that had formed up just behind them. Libo and his marines watched helplessly as eighty arrows were notched onto eighty strings, and the bows bent back in a collective creak of straining wood. Then, like a swarm of angry hornets, the arrows took flight, a full volley that zipped over the heads of the legionaries and then sliced into and through the files of marines. The round shields carried by most of Libo’s men were much smaller and lighter than those of the legionaries, and afforded far less protection, and his men suffered for it. A man to his front shrieked and fell backwards, a feathered shaft buried in his eye. Another clawed at an arrow that had pierced his thigh, spilling a red stream onto the white sand. Several others fell down the line as more volleys came, one after another. Libo narrowly avoided several of the deadly missiles, the iron point of one stopped only by the flat of his sword. He saw Postumus crouching behind his two bodyguards. One of them extended a shield, intercepting an arrow that likely would have killed the senator. It was a valiant move, but it left the bodyguard exposed long enough that his outstretched torso received three of the feathered shafts, his mail shirt slowing one of the iron tips but not stopping it from bursting his heart.

The marines were dropping by the handful, but they could do little. They cast the spent javelins back at the well-protected legionaries, largely to no effect. There were half a dozen bowmen among Libo’s own troops, scattered down the line. They wore wide-brimmed hats to keep the sun from affecting their aim. They sent arrows back toward the enemy with great accuracy, felling several archers, but their shots were a mere nuisance when measured against the torrent of missiles coming from Antony’s ranks.

There was no cover on this barren spit of sand, and Libo saw that the only way out of the arrow storm was to close to a melee with the legionaries. This, of course, was exactly what the legionaries wanted, a motley line of sea fighters rushing against their waiting shields to have groins and abdomens opened by the deadly jabs of the gladii. In spite of this, Libo knew he had little choice. Better to die on the sword fighting than to be struck down by the faceless arrow. But before he sent them all charging to their deaths, he would try to give them a fighting chance.

Libo quickly summoned his few bowmen to him.

"Stay beside me,” he commanded. “Shoot only at who and what I tell you!"

Between the gaps in the shields, Libo looked out across the barren space separating the opposing lines and scanned the legionary formation until he found what he was looking for.

"There is your target!" he said, pointing with the tip of his sword.

The first man chosen to die was the centurion, who glanced once too often over the rim of his shield. He went down with two arrows in his neck. Next, Libo pointed out the optio of the century, distinguished by the tall hastile propped in the sand beside him. The wooden staff was used, on most days, to keep the soldiers in line, but on this day it had served to mark its bearer for death. Five arrows flew at the optio, and then he, too, fell clutching his throat, gasping for air from a severed windpipe. The signifer, bearing the century standard, was the next to die. The first arrow knocked the wolf head helmet off his head, while two more planted themselves in the shield of the legionary next to him. As the signifer turned, scanning the ground for his fallen cover, the fourth arrow struck at the base of his skull, driving into his brain and killing him instantly. His lifeless body crumpled amongst the gaping soldiers around him.

The enemy archers were still sending arrows at Libo’s marines, whose angled shields were so full of feathered shafts they might have been quivers, but his own archers were dealing devastating counter-blows as well, killing the leaders on which the green legionary recruits so heavily relied. The savor of this triumph did not linger long. Two of Libo’s bowmen received their death wounds simultaneously, the enemy archers having shifted their aim to deal with the new menace.

Libo was moments away from ordering a general charge, when he saw another officer filing through the legionary shields from the rear. Libo instantly recognized him as the green-plumed knight that had accompanied Antony. He evidently had come to the front to assume command of the leaderless legionaries, and he strode proudly amongst the crouching soldiers, showing no visible concern for his own safety, as if in direct defiance of Libo’s bowmen. In so doing, he made himself Libo’s final target. He fell, pierced by three arrows that had sought out the gap between his bronze cuirass and the cheek pieces of his helmet, a crimson waterfall spilling over his useless armor.

Before the dust settled from the knight’s collapse, while the legionaries stared at the twitching form of their senior officer, Libo gave the command and his marines rushed forward screeching like a pack of demons unleashed from the underworld. Without being told, they formed into a crude wedge and then surged across the sand. A few javelins sailed into the ranks, but these did not find flesh, only upturned shields. Then, the leading marines barreled into the legionary formation with all of their momentum, knocking over several of the crouching soldiers in the front line. Some marines used their opponents’ large shields as springboards, leaping over the heads of the front line to land amongst the startled rear ranks. This proved fatal to some, who were instantly hacked to death by half a dozen gladii, but some were successful, swinging axes and swords in quick maiming strokes that seemed berserk and uncontrolled in nature but were in actuality delivered with startling precision. They cut deeply into unprotected legs, hewed off hands at the wrist, and lopped off toes, their boarding actions having taught them that maiming a man in battle was just as effective as killing him. They hacked and slew in an ever widening circle, and soon the entire wedge of marines – only a score or so still on their feet – had pushed deep into the century and had filled the circle, now beset on all sides.

Libo and Postumus had followed in the heart of the wedge and now stood at the bloody center of this circle. Libo could see that the maneuver had succeeded in removing his men from the barrage of arrows, for none came while they were in such close proximity to the legionaries, but even after subtracting the mass of dead lying in red pools at their feet, Antony’s troops still outnumbered them.

This would be their final moment – a final stand.

He looked wildly at Postumus, wishing for some sort of inspiration, some sort of united pact of honor to die in the service of the republic together, but the senator was too busy avoiding jabs and strokes. In one hand he held his unblemished gladius, while in the other he clutched the back of his bodyguard’s corselet, steering the blood-spattered warrior at each new threat as one might yield a weapon. The skilled blade-for-hire had already killed two legionaries that had smashed through the defensive ring, and as Libo watched he opened the neck of another. Postumus did not seem resigned to death. Instead, he was protecting his life as though he were a young man yet to experience the wonders of this existence.

Libo cared only for one thing now. If this were to be his last act, he wished to go to his death knowing that he had struck at least one blow for the republic. With this in mind, he stepped up on a legionary corpse and looked over the top of the raging melee, hoping to catch sight of the Faun  traversing the channel to the north which separated Basada from the mainland. And there she was! Her masts were clearly visible, moving against a backdrop of drab hills on the mainland beyond. Looking at the body of water to the west of the island, beyond the mass of helmets and swinging weapons, Libo spied the Faun’s  prey, the four treasure craft with their green canopies, slowly crawling across the harbor. They were within the Faun ’s grasp, but she must first navigate through the channel. She must avoid the shallows on the south side of the channel, while staying clear of the fort on the north side. The fort stood at the end of the mainland promontory and guarded the entrance to the harbor. Within its walls stood several towers which undoubtedly held throwing engines that could reach across the the narrow water passage. But if the Faun  stayed to the south side of the channel, at the extreme range of the engines, then she had every hope of getting through with only marginal damage, if any. Libo had every confidence that the Faun ’s captain had taken the necessary precautions, keeping his rowers at full stroke, and his fire crews standing ready with buckets of seawater.

As the Faun  entered the hazardous stretch of water, Libo expected to see missiles taking to the sky, but he was astonished when not a single projectile was loosed. There were helmets above the fort’s ramparts, and he could see the trails of black smoke emanating from the pitch pots inside, but no missiles flew. If they did not loose their barrage soon, the Faun  would be through without a scratch, for her oars were rising and falling at a pace that must have every oarsman heaving for air and straining every last muscle to its limit.

If the Faun  got through, Antony’s vessels would be sunk for sure. If the Faun  got through, the slaughter of this day would have been worth it.

Then, as Libo watched, the Faun ’s masts suddenly changed aspect. She was turning, inexplicably, maddeningly toward the fort. She turned so sharply that her masts leaned heavily and her larboard side seemed to dig into the water. To make such a turn in the middle of such a narrow, rock-lined channel was utter madness, even without the menace of an enemy fort. Libo grasped for some explanation. It came to him, in the space of a few heartbeats, and left him cursing his own impetuousness and lack of foresight. For the Faun  had not turned of her own volition. She had run upon a cable, strewn at an angle across the neck of the passage. Now she staggered along the unseen obstruction, unable to push through it, and with too much momentum to back away. The cable was probably made of stout iron links such as those Libo had seen used in ports of the Far East during petty trade disputes between kingdoms. Whatever its make, it was too stout for the Faun ’s rowers to overcome. Libo watched in utter helplessness as the bireme’s impetus carried her along the angled barrier like a sheep to a slaughter pen, until she grounded on the rocks directly beneath the fort’s towers.

The next moment, the sky filled with streaking yellow darts that rose from the fort and descended upon the helpless Faun . There could be no escape. Her decks and masts burst into flames as glowing bolts laced with pitch drove into the oak bulwarks spreading fire and death. The oars no longer moved, the rowers having long since abandoned their benches to join the frantic figures that now ran to and fro on deck, searching for a means to escape the raging inferno. They leapt over the side in droves, some alight, some flailing. Flickering strands of burning cordage dropped into the sea, and the tenuous masts soon followed. Before the fort’s engines could loose their third volley, the whole ship was an indiscernible, fiery mass.

It was over now, Libo knew, the realization of the complete and utter nature of the defeat overshadowing his thoughts like an evil spirit. Had Centurion Lucius Domitius been among those escaping the Faun , or had he died in the flames? Had he laughed when his dart struck Flavius, leaving Antony unscathed, setting into motion the chain of events that had allowed the traitor to escape, had destroyed the Faun , and had allowed the treasury reserves to be carried away? Did that son of a whore find it amusing to see the shocked look on all of their faces?

Two paces in front of Libo a marine was felled by a pilum that had been thrust into his ribs by a crouching legionary. In an uncontrollable rage, Libo dashed forward, batted the spear aside and buried his sword in the legionary’s gullet. Then in one sweeping motion, in which he harnessed all of his rage, he lopped off the man’s head, and in the tottering helmet, saw the face of Lucius Domitius, and it would replace the face of any man he fought this day, for he held nothing but disgust for the centurion now. But in a truthful moment, and with the clash of steel resounding around him, Libo knew that it was really his own fault for putting such trust in one who had been his enemy only days ago. How could he have been so stupid? He had led these men to their deaths. He had sent the Faun  into certain destruction. He was their admiral, and he was responsible. They would search him out in the afterlife, clawing at his soul for retribution, for a youth deprived, for an honorless death in a barren place unwatched by the gods.

The legionaries closed in, and Libo cast aside his thoughts to take up sword and shield in the dwindling battle line with his warriors. He fought beside them, hammering at the enemy shields and striking injurious blows at every opportunity. Blood sprayed from open arteries. The air was thick with the odor of the dying. The press of the jostling combatants was enormous, and he found himself hacking and slashing, not caring if the next jabbing steel point ended his life.

But then, the fates intervened once again.

The press of the enemy suddenly relaxed, and then was no longer there. Libo glanced over his shield and, before his red-hued eyes, the enemy formation came apart. Legionary after legionary cast aside the encumbering shields and javelins and darted for the shore off which sat their one remaining craft. Upon seeing this, many of the archer auxiliaries followed suit.

“Blessed Jupiter!” one of the marines cheered, and then the others joined in, raising their blood-stained blades above their heads. Libo looked to see what had caused such revelry amid a carpet of the dead and dying, and when he saw what they were cheering about, he nearly joined in the euphoria.

Three triremes had landed on the seaward side of the island, and from their decks spilled a horde of marines and sailors, at least a hundred in number, all gleaming with arms and all shouting the battle cry. The trireme captains must have pushed their crews to the limits of endurance to get them to row so swiftly, for Libo knew well that these three ships came from the inshore squadron, which had been cruising off the coast several leagues away.

Faced with a new group of warriors that looked to be even more daunting than the one that had slain so many of their comrades, and filled with the knowledge that the one remaining vessel could not possibly carry them all off, Antony’s troops had broken. The fresh swordsmen chased the fleeing legionaries and archers into the surf, where men reached with desperate hands, clamoring to be pulled aboard the overloaded craft. But many of these were batted away by their own comrades, for the encumbered vessel was already teetering as it pushed away from the shore and steered for the harbor. Those unfortunate enough to be left behind met the vengeful blades of their pursuers and turned the lapping waves scarlet as they were slaughtered without mercy.

Libo bent over to catch his breath, dropping both sword and shield in the sand. But as he spit the blood out of his mouth from an earlier blow that had dislodged a tooth, he saw a shadow appear beside him. He looked up to see that it was Postumus, his face as inscrutable as it had been before the battle, or any other occasion, detached and unaffected by the gore all around him. He was staring at Libo as if waiting for an answer.

“Well?” the senator said impatiently.

“Well what?” Libo replied puzzled.

“I asked you a question, Admiral. My adjutant is dead, and the deal with Antony in shambles. I demand an explanation! What happened? Who shot that arrow?”

Normally a brutally honest man, Libo felt that this time he was justified in deviating from the truth, especially when dealing with a man whose own loyalties were questionable.

“I tell you plainly, Senator, I know not. There are indeed agents of the enemy lurking within the fleet. I suspect it might have had something to do with the attack on Lady Calpurnia the other night.”

Postumus shook his head disgruntledly and walked away, either dissatisfied with the answer or uncomfortable with the direction Libo had intentionally steered the discussion.

Some marines walking by were chuckling to themselves, and Libo overheard the words Scribonius Libo Basadan. Perhaps that would be his legacy, he mused, the conqueror of Basada. He had conquered a useless strip of sand devoid of water and life, and which would soon become the burial ground for these mangled corpses all around him. Like a nagging pain, he felt the weighty burden of command return to his shoulders, for his fleet was low on provisions and water. It would be difficult to maintain the blockade much longer – and now he faced a most difficult decision.

XXIX

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A ragged handful of tired figures pulled themselves from the waters of the channel onto the rocky shore below the fort. Helmeted faces peered down at them from the towers and shouted threats, commanding them to remain where they were or be cut down by a hail of arrows. A squad of spear-wielding legionaries appeared at the palisade gate and began descending the path towards them.

Lucius and Marjanita were among those emerging from the waters. Lucius carried the half-conscious woman over his shoulder and gently laid her down onto a dry rock. She was slowly coming to now, and as she did, she realized that her hands were bound.

"Where are we?" she asked dismally. "Where have you stolen me off to?"

"Not stolen, girl – saved," Lucius replied, pointing to the channel and the burning wreck of the Faun , aground and collapsing.

“Saved me?"

“Aye, girl. And that after you tried to kill me with that knife of yours.” He bore his thigh to her, revealing the long gash that still dripped blood from the wool wrapping he had applied. He smiled and added, “You should thank me."

She shot him an annoyed scowl as she struggled against the bonds. They had been placed there by the Faun ’s sailors, and Lucius was now glad that he had decided to keep them on her.

"You lying dog!" She spat after finally giving up trying to break free. "My mistress instructed you to kill the senator! Not the aide!"

Lucius shrugged. "I didn't like the aide."

"You betrayed my mistress! You betrayed me, just as I knew you would. I should have cut your heart out last night!"

"Hold on, lass! My deal was with Lady Calpurnia, not with a slave."

She looked up at him defiantly, but there was something else in those eyes beyond venom, something deeper that told of personal pain.

"A slave paid your price!" she finally said in disgust.

Lucius had been light-hearted with her up to that moment, but now he saw that he had gone too far. He saw that the moniker of slave  had struck a chord with her, and he regretted it, for he wished the woman no ill will. In all of the many slaves Lucius had encountered in his travels, he had known very few that did not yearn for freedom. Certainly, the life of a house slave for a great family like the Calpurnii was comfortable when compared with that of a wheel walker deep in the silver mines of Gades. But for one with the soul of an adventurer, like Marjanita, any bondage, no matter how lenient, must be unbearable. The tattoos across her shoulder and breast spoke of a time when she had enjoyed freedom. He had noticed them last night in the dim light, and now he saw their true magnificence under the light of day. Horse, shield, lance, and bow were depicted there in decorative splendor, all renderings that a man might wear, but these were adorned with intricate and deliberate curves that made them distinctively woman’s. In his youth, he had read of the Amazon warriors of the great plain, the women who loved and slew men as lustily as the swashbucklers of the pirate coasts. They chose honor before life, and would never let a gift go unreciprocated or an infraction unrequited. Were these the trappings of her former life?

After Lucius’s dart had skewered Flavius instead of the senator, Marjanita had come after him, as expected, brandishing her sinister dagger. He had been ready for her, meeting her wild jabs with counter-punches learned in countless fights in taverns and army camps. But Marjanita's moves had been far more adroit than those of any tavern brawler. She side-slipped his attempts to restrain her arms, slashing at him with a few strokes that might have killed him had they been a hand’s breadth clo


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ser. She had nicked him a few times, and had managed a stinging slash to his thigh, before Lucius had adjusted his defense. He had fought the warrior women of the German tribes once, and had learned after much pain how very different those women fought in hand to hand combat. They were difficult to pin down, and deadly accurate with their weapons, often using an attacker’s own momentum and brute force against him. Marjanita was much the same, and he quickly realized that he had to wait for her to attack, not chase her. It was during one such attack, after he had deflected a strong thrust of her dagger, that the Faun's  sailors struck her across the head with a belaying pin, knocking her unconscious. The captain had ordered it, probably more in the interest of bringing order to his deck than helping Lucius. A runner had arrived from Libo, ordering the ship to get underway, and the captain was consumed with that task. He had instructed Lucius to stay out of the way and had paid him no more attention after that. After the vessel had grounded on the rocks and had come under the intense hail of flaming missiles, Lucius saw the Faun 's captain and several sailors crushed under the weight of a falling yard. When the rest of the crew abandoned the ship, Lucius did too, but not before scooping up the still form of Marjanita.

Now, as they sat with the rest of the survivors waiting to be taken as prisoners, Lucius contemplated his circumstances. Should he identify himself as a centurion of the Tenth, he would surely be taken before Antony. How might he explain to the general his presence aboard the Faun ? How might he preserve his own life should Antony denote him as a traitor and use this as an excuse to get rid of him? Then, a thought suddenly came into his head.

He nudged the still irate Marjanita and pointed out the legionaries clattering down the path towards them.

"They will take us captive, girl. When they discover who I am, we will be separated. I will go back to Antony's army, and you will go with the other prisoners." Lucius paused to let her contemplate all of the implications of that, and her simmering eyes told him she understood. "I can help you."

"I need no help from you, dog!" she snapped. "I would kill myself first. I deserve to die, for failing my mistress so."

"There is another choice."

She looked at him reluctantly, and he continued.

"Look out there," Lucius gestured to the fleet out on the sea, the giant Argonaut  clearly distinguishable amidst the other black shapes. "Out there, on the flagship, your mistress is now alone and unprotected. How long do you think before Postumus figures out who was responsible for messing up his little deal with Antony? How long do think it will be before he arranges her murder?"

She eyed him balefully.

"I suspect he'll have her eliminated at the first opportunity." Lucius paused and then looked her in the eye. "But that does not have to happen. If Postumus and his friends in the Senate are defeated…"

She looked at him with reluctant interest. "How?"

Lucius looked up at the approaching soldiers. They had only moments now.

"I will demand that we be taken before Antony." Lucius smirked. "That should spoil the bastard's breakfast."

Marjanita was unimpressed. "How does this help my mistress?"

"Antony will recognize you as the same messenger who delivered the last message from the Raven. We'll pretend that I don't know anything, that I was captured and you sprung me from my chain at the oar so I could convey you to Antony. You just explain to him that the deal was foiled by Libo and Postumus, that neither of them ever spoke for the Raven, and that the true Raven still seeks to make an arrangement. If you are convincing enough, Antony may find the whole thing plausible. Tell him you've come with a new message and new instructions. Can you do that?"

"I suppose," she shrugged, curiously skeptical. "What then?"

"Why then, lass," Lucius smiled craftily. "Then you must say exactly what I tell you to."

XXX

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“Our scouts ashore have signaled again, Admiral,” Naevius broke into Libo’s concentration. “Still no sign of the enemy, no sign of Antony’s cavalry, and we’ve been here nigh on eight hours. Blessed Juno, at this rate, we’ll fill every cask to bursting.”

Libo nodded in acknowledgement, and then turned his attention back to the bay where dozens of small boats, loaded down with amphorae and casks of all size, pulled to and from the tree-lined shore of the small bay. The captain correctly sensed that his admiral was deep in thought and wished to be left alone, and so he moved on. But such courtesy was not extended by Postumus who brusquely approached Libo for the third time since the changing of the watch.

“I say again, Admiral, this is a profound waste of time,” the senator exclaimed hotly. “The fleet should make for Corcyra, without delay. You are a failure, sir! You have failed to secure the treasury, and now you attempt to cover for that failure by overplaying your blockade duties.”

“The treasury was never my mission, Senator,” Libo replied, and then added with slight contempt in his tone, “Though I’m sure it was yours all along! My duty is to keep Antony’s legions from crossing the sea, and that is precisely what I shall do, even if it means staying afloat until the spring.”

“My dear young man, do you hear yourself? Do you know who you sound like?”

“Once we have watered,” Libo said, ignoring the remark. “We will resume station off Brundisium, and wait.”

“We have been waiting for far too long already!” Postumus took in a deep breath, as if to control his aggravation. “Very well, Admiral. If you must have it your way, then I insist that you immediately detach one of your fastest ships to convey me to Corcyra. It is imperative that I make my report to the Senate posthaste. If the Raven discovers that his plans have been thwarted before the Senate can launch an investigation and expose the traitor, then he will have the upper hand. He will have time to slip away – or worse, to negotiate a new deal with Antony. Such a plan may already be in the works, as we sit here doing nothing!”

“I regret that I cannot spare any vessels at the moment, Senator,” Libo said dismissively.

Postumus shook his fists in frustration, veins pulsing at his temples, but he eventually turned on his heel and left.

Libo had lied, of course. The absence of one ship would not impact the effectiveness of the blockade, but he did not believe for one moment that Postumus wished to hurry back to expose the Raven. A veil of distrust had fallen between them in the week since the battle on Basada. The senator obviously suspected Libo had something to do with Flavius’s assassination, and Libo suspected the senator of colluding with the enemy without the true authorization of the Senate. Whoever got to Thessalonica first, with the most believable story, would garner the Senate’s favor, and to that end, Libo dared not let the senator go.

Postumus had made similar requests over the past few days and had accepted Libo’s refusals politely and professionally, evidently not wishing to appear too desperate. But today, the mask of courtesy was falling away. And now, without his aide around to keep his brutish side in check, the loutish senator was resorting to personal slurs, openly dubbing Libo a failure on the deck of his own flagship within earshot of many of the crew.

Libo sighed, glancing once at the position of the sun. Even when considering the source, he knew there was some truth to that sobriquet. The battle, though technically a victory, had cost him one bireme, its entire crew, and several dozen marines. In exchange for these losses, he was now lord over a tiny island that had no water and about as many bird droppings as granules of sand. Regardless, he had placed a small garrison of marines there, if only as a gesture, and in the week since the battle, they had done little but stare across the water at the helmeted figures on the walls of the enemy fort.

The fleet had also accomplished very little. It had cruised aimlessly off Brundisium, watching and waiting for a move by Antony that never came. There had been no sign of activity, either in the harbor or against the wharf. The bulk of Antony’s transports were hidden inside Brundisium’s inner harbor, and they made no appearance. The green draped treasure ships that had escaped from the island had been beached on the harbor side of the promontory, under the lee of the fort, and had not moved since the day of the battle. They had remained there, as if daring Libo to send a raiding party to capture them. Postumus had suggested that such an attempt be made, but Libo had rejected the idea, certain that the seemingly helpless craft were bait for an unseen trap. He needed only point out the charred wreck of the Faun , slowly eroding with each flood and ebb of the tide, to remind the senator of the fort’s lethality.

It had soon become apparent to Libo that Antony had decided to wait him out, perhaps guessing, or perhaps gleaning from prisoners taken from the Faun , that Libo’s fleet was perilously short of water. There had been a few rains, and many of the ships had used canvas awnings to catch some of the precious liquid, but it had not been enough, and Libo had found himself approaching a decision point.

He had sent ships up and down the coast to scout out inland streams, but each had been met at the shore by the menace of Antony’s cavalry who shadowed the fleet at every turn. Many of these horsemen were Gallic auxiliaries, mounted on steeds raised in Gaul that could ride fifty miles in one day, and then do it again after a night’s rest. They were numerous, and sometimes it seemed as if the whole coast were alive with the wild riders. Even when Libo sent out individual vessels, sending them as far as twenty leagues down the coast, the whooping cavalry was there, brandishing a fearsome array of long swords and lances. Libo was near the point of ordering half of the fleet to return to Corcyra – an order that would surely have pleased Postumus – when, yesterday, a welcome report had been received from his scouting vessels.

Antony’s cavalry had disappeared. The galloping columns that had adorned the seaside hills were nowhere in sight and appeared to be entirely absent from the coast. Whatever the reason for it, Libo had decided to capitalize on the blunder. He had ordered one squadron to cover the approaches to Brundisium, while the rest of the fleet made all speed for this isolated bay in which they now lay anchored, twenty leagues to the north.

Now, the water crisis was over, and his initiative seemed to have paid off. Still, he felt uneasy.

The hill-lined bay seemed eerily quiet. His squadrons had been there for most of the night. Now, it was nearing midday, and still, the only activity ashore was that of his own work parties and a few farmers who curiously observed the anchored fleet from the distant heights. The enemy was nowhere to be seen.

There had to be a reason for it. Surely, word of the fleet’s movements had reached Brundisium by now, and Antony’s cavalry should have responded. Perhaps the cavalry had been sent to quell a revolt in some other part of Italy. But Libo shook his head, resisting the urge to hang onto the optimistic assessment. All of his instincts told him that it was too easy. This stroke of good fortune was too good not to have some devilment behind it.

He heard a woman’s voice behind him and turned to see Calpurnia giving orders to a group of slaves. The slaves passed the lady’s baggage in a long line from the stern cabin to the starboard gangway where a launch awaited her.

“It is a pity that you must leave us, my lady,” Libo said, approaching her. “The Argonaut  and her crew will miss the joy of your company.”

“You are most kind, Admiral,” she said affectionately. “My father would have been pleased with your generosity.

“Are you sure I cannot send one of my officers ashore with you? Especially now that your handmaid has gone missing. You still have a long journey ahead of you.”

“That will not be necessary. I have ample money to hire transportation to Rome. I shall miss your kindness, very much.” She looked past him. “I shall not miss others.”

Libo turned to see that she gazed upon Postumus, who leaned against the foredeck rail, facing outward and brimming with irritation as he watched the slow craft moving to and from the shore. The senator’s one surviving bodyguard stood beside him.

“You must watch the senator closely, Admiral,” Calpurnia said fervently. “He is most dangerous now that his plans have failed. Never trust him. Never turn your back on him.”

Libo smiled appreciatively, and was about to respond, when a hail came from the masthead.

“Ship there, sir!” The lookout in the tops pointed, his arm stretched out black against the blue sky. “At the entrance of the bay, sir! She’s heading this way! She comes on at the battle stroke!”

Libo looked at the mouth of the bay to see a trireme approaching the anchorage at a rapid pace, her three banks of oars dipping and falling faster than a man’s heartbeat.

“That’s the Genius , sir,” Naevius reported. “She belongs to Ursus Squadron.”

Ursus Squadron had been left behind to watch Brundisium, and Libo somehow knew at that moment that his fears had turned into reality, that this ship bore some ill news, and that he had made a dire mistake in bringing the fleet this far north.

As if to confirm his suspicions, a rash of signal flags ran up the yardarm of the approaching ship.

“The Genius  is signaling, sir,” Naevius announced. “Enemy fleet at sea. Sailing in the direction of the Illyrian coast! ”

“At sea, by Jupiter!” Postumus exclaimed, suddenly beside Libo. “Is the gold aboard, man?”

“We don’t know, Senator!” Libo snapped angrily, more frustrated with himself, than with the senator’s question. “Get the boats in, captain! Signal all squadrons to prepare for sea without delay!”

“Aye, sir,” Naevius saluted and then began barking orders.

As the previously peaceful deck transformed into a maelstrom of rushing sailors, Libo realized that Calpurnia was still there. He looked at her apologetically, but the admiral’s daughter seemed to understand perfectly. There would be no time to send her ashore now. Naevius would need every last hand to get the boats aboard, the oars manned, and the ship ready to sail. With a simple smile, she retired quietly to the stern cabin with her slave girls close behind.

“My lord Admiral,” the Genius’s  captain reported somewhat nervously, after his ship hove to and he rushed across to the flagship. “My lord, Commodore Sardus sends you his respects and apologies, sir. The enemy fleet has put to sea. They drive northeast, towards the Illyrian coast under all sail!”

“What of the treasure ships?” Postumus asked impatiently. “Are they with Antony’s fleet?”

“Not now, Senator!” Libo retorted, then turned back to the restless captain. “Tell me what happened. Give me a full report.”

The captain looked at him with jittery eyes. It was obvious he had pushed his crew to the limit to get here. “Today started like any other, sir. The harbor was quiet, with nothing but a lugger or two pulling across every now and again, just as it’s been every day for the last week. But then, sir, just after the third hour, it was as if the very shore had come alive. Men were running everywhere, but to what purpose we couldn’t make out. There was a flurry of activity around those beached treasure ships moored under the lee of the fort, the ones with the green canopies. Then, before we knew it, they were underway, tearing across the harbor and making for the southern channel at all speed. They were moving fast, sir, with only a handful of biremes escorting them. Since our squadron was hanging off the northern channel at the time, the commodore figured they were making a run for it, trying to slip past us while we were at the top of our circuit. He understood what you said, sir, that those ships were likely loaded with gold and that they were to be watched closely, and seized if the opportunity afforded itself. Well, when they came out of the channel, the commodore made the decision to run them down. They turned south, following the coast, and that seemed odd at first, but then we just assumed they wanted to get away from our squadron before they headed out across the open sea. We made good speed, sir, but they led us on quite a chase. When we had nearly caught up with them, they turned their prows to the shore and the whole lot ran up on the beach as if they had reconsidered the whole voyage. The crews deserted the moment the keels scraped the sand, jumping into the shallows and scrambling over the hills faster than we could count them. We thought it was our lucky day, sir, for the crews had fled and there was no enemy around to contest our seizing the prizes.”

“Well?” Postumus demanded. “Did you secure the gold?”

The captain cast a doubtful glance at Libo, who nodded and then closed his eyes. For Libo understood everything now and did not need to hear the rest of the story. Postumus, on the other hand, had evidently not deduced what had happened and was growing visibly annoyed at the captain’s reluctance.

“What’s wrong, man?” the senator barked. “Can you not speak?”

“The ships were empty, my lord,” the captain said, averting his eyes to the deck.

“What do you mean they were empty?”

“When we searched them, my lord, the gold wasn’t there. The enemy must have taken it off in Brundisium. They must have done it in the night, when our garrison on Basada couldn’t observe them doing it.” The captain paused momentarily, distracted by Postumus who stared off into space as a man who had just heard that his house had burned down with all of his possessions in it. “Of course, we realized we had been duped, and beat a quick passage back to Brundisium, but only just in time to see the last ships of Antony’s fleet leaving the harbor under all sails bound for Illyricum.”

“How many ships?” Libo asked, forcing himself to retain his composure.

“At least sixty or seventy, sir. Transports of every size, stretching out over the horizon. There were a few warships among them, bringing up the rear. Enough to keep us at arms’ length. The commodore dispatched me here with the news, and I nearly killed my oarsmen getting here.”

“Thank you, captain,” Libo said calmly. “Return to your ship and prepare to get underway with the rest of the fleet.”

“Aye, my lord.”

As the captain marched off, Postumus turned to Libo with a look of disgust.

“Antony’s legions are at sea, Admiral! No doubt, the treasury is, too! Never in my career have I encountered such complete and utter incompetence! You can believe that when I return to Thessalonica, I will tell the Senate -“

“Tell them anything you like, Senator!” Libo interrupted. “Tell them if perhaps I’d had another squadron here, it would have made the difference! Now, if you will excuse me, I have business to attend to.”

Libo stormed off, feeling Postumus’s piercing eyes on his back as he descended the hatchway. Libo inwardly cursed himself at playing directly into Antony’s hands. He also found himself cursing Lucius Domitius, for if that bastard of a centurion had not betrayed him, none of this would have happened. A glimpse of a thought came to his mind – the thought that Lucius might not have died aboard the Faun , that the treacherous centurion might have made his way to Antony, and might have been the one to inform Antony of the fleet’s dire need of water. Could it be that Lucius was responsible for this whole turn of events?

By the time Libo reached his quarters and stretched a chart of the Illyrian coast across his desk, he had banished all such ridiculous thoughts from his mind. For he needed to think clearly now.

He had a fleet to catch.

XXXI

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It was a motley armada, Marc Antony considered as he studied the ragged column of ships stretching off for miles in both directions. He stood atop the swaying arrow tower of his flagship, the Vulcan , an aging quinquereme left over from the days of the Cilician pirates. He was surrounded by his advisors and legates, all bedecked in field armor, all watching with nervous eagerness as the fragile fleet negotiated the pitching seas, driving north along the rocky coast of Illyricum.

“Wind’s holding steady, sir!” the Vulcan’s  captain called up to him from the main deck, as if to reassure him that the breakers, clearly visible only a few miles off the starboard beam, would not present a threat.

The Vulcan  rode near the center of the convoy, where Antony had a good view of the ships ahead and astern, each one brimming with men and beasts. He had been keeping a mental note of which vessels also contained a portion of the thirty million sesterces from the aerarium. He had personally selected those vessels for their seaworthiness, and so far, all had made it across the Adriatic unscathed.

He still marveled at the odd turn of events that had put him here, only a few miles from his final destination and the attainment of his ultimate objective – to be the sole ruler of Rome.

One week ago, such dreams had seemed hopeless and lost. Postumus’s treachery on Basada had nearly scuppered his plans. The double-dealing old bastard had played him for a fool, and had nearly managed to kill him and make off with the treasury gold. The betrayal had enraged Antony, not because his own force on the island had been annihilated, but because he had sincerely led himself to believe that his agreement with the Raven was genuine, and that the shadowy leader of Rome’s underworld truly intended to designate him imperator of all Roman armies, making him the de facto ruler of the empire.

After the disastrous battle for Basada, from which Antony had only just managed to escape with his life, he had gone straight to his headquarters in Brundisium, retiring to his chamber to stew for several long hours. He lost himself in a bottle of wine while wracking his brain for some way in which he would explain his dawdling to Caesar, should Caesar defeat Pompey, and, conversely, how he might excuse his allegiance to Caesar should Pompey and the Senate prevail. He fell into a dark, angry mood, and by the time sleep overcame him he had considered abandoning the army, Caesar, Rome, Italy – everything – not by committing suicide, but by fleeing over the Alps to disappear among the barbarian tribes of the north.

Then, the next morning, after summoning his legates and the eunuch Orestes to begin mapping out a new plan, forcing himself to once again play the part of Caesar’s loyal lieutenant, everything suddenly changed.

“Forgive me, General.” One of his guards interrupted the bleak consultation. "But a man and a woman are outside craving to be admitted. The man claims to be a centurion of the Tenth Legion, one Lucius Domitius.”

Antony shot a panicked look at Orestes, who seemed just as perplexed by the news.

“Allow him to enter,” Antony said after a few moments pause, and then smiled politely to the assembled legates. “Let us have a recess, gentlemen. Go fill your cups, while I hear what this mule turd wants to say.”

The confused legates filed out of the room, leaving Antony and Orestes alone to receive the two visitors. A very drenched and very tired looking Lucius Domitius entered with a woman who was just as bedraggled. While the sight of Lucius shocked Antony, for the simple reason that he had given express orders to Marcellus to have the centurion killed once they reached Greece, it was nothing compared to his astonishment when he realized the woman was the Raven’s agent whom he had received four weeks ago, and who had delivered the message that had started this whole affair.

“Your presence here surprises me, Lucius,” Antony said with forced joviality.

“I’m sure it does, sir,” the centurion replied.

Antony could not decipher whether the centurion’s manner was courteous or canny, but he continued to pretend that he was pleased to see him.

“I’m shocked by your presence, Lucius, and your dreadful condition. Juno’s tight arse, man, you smell like a fish market! Where in Neptune’s dark crevice did you come from? And what are you doing with this strumpet?”

“I believe you know this woman, sir.”

“Indeed I do,” Antony replied, eyeing her narrowly. “And I am grateful to you, Lucius, for bringing her to me. She is a deceitful little witch who deserves nothing less than the poena cullei .” He glanced at the eunuch, then back at the woman sinisterly. “What say you Orestes? Shall we sew her up in the sack with a viper? No, that would be too quick. Perhaps we can get our hands on that rabid monkey you pointed out in the market the other day. Of course, we’ll let the auxiliaries have their way with her first.”

Orestes nodded his concurrence but said nothing. Antony noticed that the eunuch seemed oddly uncomfortable in the presence of the other two. He dismissed it, knowing well that Orestes was a social idiot and tended only to impart his thoughts when discussing matters of state and strategy.

“This woman is not your enemy, sir,” Lucius said forcefully. “I have brought her here because she has a message for you – from the Raven.”

Antony eyed him suspiciously. “How came you to know about the Raven, Lucius? You were sent as a bodyguard. Marcellus was not to tell you anything.”

“He passed the message on to me, sir,” Lucius shrugged, as if he did not understand. “You see, we were attacked by the enemy fleet. He was killed, and I was taken prisoner. The enemy admiral and some senator – I forget his name – they put me under the lash, sir. They interrogated me for days on end.” The big centurion turned and pulled down his wet tunic, displaying fresh red scabs running across the muscled ridges of his vast back. “I was in a terrible state, sir, and I don’t remember all that I said. I guess I must have told them what Marcellus told me.”

Antony considered for a long moment, and then it suddenly dawned on him. “Postumus and Libo!” he said fervently. “They intercepted our message! Do you realize what this means, Orestes? It means the Raven never received it. It means Libo and Postumus were nothing more than opportunists trying to insert themselves in this affair. It means,” he paused, looking at the woman, “the letter this woman carried was legitimate. This confirms it came from the Raven and was not one of Postumus’s tricks as we had thought. You said yourself the seal was authentic. Then the Raven truly did offer me command of the armies.”

The woman nodded. “That is correct, Excellency. When my master did not receive your reply, he suspected something had gone amiss. He dispatched me to contact you again. The last time I visited you, I was conveyed to Italy by a fishing vessel, but the journey has become much more perilous since then. I boarded the flagship Argonaut , disguised as a handmaid to a noble woman who was taking passage back to Italy. While at sea, I came across this centurion. He recognized me and told me everything that had happened. I helped him escape and we both slipped aboard the vessel that now lies sunk in the channel. By the grace of Athena, we survived, and now stand before you.”

“Indeed,” Antony said, his recent ire at the woman all but forgotten. “And where is this new message?”

“It is a verbal message,” the woman replied succinctly. “My master, the Raven, will honor the same agreement proposed before, with one exception.”

“And that is?”

“You must find a way to bring your troops across the sea.”

“That is difficult, especially with your master’s fleet sitting off my coast.”

“My master does not control the fleet. He has no influence over Libo or Postumus. You can be sure, he will deal with them in his own good time, but for now you must cross the sea without his assistance. You are to meet him at Nymphaeum, on the Illyrian coast. He will erect a scarlet pavilion on the strand south of the town that you may know it is him. You must land your legions there, and the treasury gold, and you must arrive within one week. If you fail to do this, he will consider you his enemy, and his agreement with you will be nullified.”

“Why Nymphaeum? Why so far north?”

“That your legions might reinforce Pompey’s army without any interference from Caesar.”

“Do you not mean my  army?”

“It shall only be yours once the treasury gold is in my master’s custody. Until then, Pompey commands.”

“Your master gives me an insurmountable task.” Antony had said frustratedly. He pondered his predicament for a long moment, searching for a solution. He glanced at Orestes. “What about you, Orestes? Any ideas creeping into that


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deviant cerebrum of yours? The Rhodian fleet is at the bottom. I have a collection of rotted river scows, not proper transports, and Libo watches my every move. Now that he controls Basada – ”

“There is a way,” Lucius had said suddenly before the quiet eunuch could respond. “Pardon my interrupting, sir.”

Antony had sighed. “Go on, Lucius.”

“Libo’s fleet is worse off than you think, sir,” Lucius had said. “Their water casks are near empty. They’ve enough to get them through a week or so, but if you give him a chance to water his fleet, he’ll have no choice but to take it.”

And Lucius’s suggestion had been the key. The cavalry patrols had been recalled, and Libo had taken the bait.

Now, Antony’s convoy was close to reaching the natural harbor at Nymphaeum, and the designated rendezvous with the Raven. The crossing had not been without its problems. Every ship in Brundisium that could maintain no more than a foot of water in the bilge had been commandeered, be it merchant or fisherman, Roman or foreign, nearly eighty ships in all. They ranged in size from the three-decked quinquereme on which he now stood down to small, deckless galleys that could scarcely surmount the waves without being swamped. Even with this massive armada of assorted vessels, Antony had been forced to leave three cohorts of the Eighth Legion behind in Brundisium. Still, he had managed to ship the better part of four legions and eight hundred horse, along with engines and impedimenta, and now they were only a few leagues away from their destination.

They would not all make it, of course. The scraggly armada was spread out for miles, clustered according to their speed and seaworthiness. Thus far, only a handful had foundered in the rough seas, but now they were sure to lose many more.

“The enemy has overtaken the Nisus , sir!” the lookout above reported.

Antony looked astern and saw what he expected to see. Far off, a charging quinquereme smashed into one of the slower transports, turning it into splinters. It was the first ship to be overtaken by the enemy fleet which had been in full pursuit for the last several hours.

Libo’s fleet had appeared in the early afternoon, a forest of masts on the western horizon that had crept slowly over the edge of the world until the hulls were visible, their imposing bows cutting through the waves while gleaming oars rose and fell in rapid succession. As the sun had waned in the sky, the enemy had closed the distance and was now overtaking the tail end of Antony’s column as it crawled up the coast.

"That is the Argonaut  in the lead, is it not?" Antony asked no one in particular, pointing at another of the enemy ships, a giant deceres with several ornate pennants whipping at its masthead.

"I believe it is, sir," replied one of the legates beside him.

"Where Postumus and his whelp Libo no doubt lick their lips, thinking they will catch us." Antony grinned, raising his hands in an obscene gesture. "Not today, you turds from a calf's arse!”

Several of the legionaries on the deck below chuckled mildly at his oath, but their merriment was guarded, for it was evident to all that they were not out of the fire yet.

In spite of his lusty invective, Antony himself had to admit an unnerving feeling at the sight of the massive Argonaut . She closed the range at an unsettling pace, coming on at full speed, her massive bow parting the waves as a plow tills the soil. The slower transports had no hope of escape, their leaky hulls were too cumbersome to evade. Like hunting falcons swooping down upon a field of mice, the giant flagship and her consorts singled out their victims. The Argonaut  altered course slightly, choosing a single-decked transport to be the first to feel the bite of her jagged ram. Facing imminent destruction, many of the transport’s crew and passengers leapt into the sea mere moments before the fatal strike. The Argonaut  ran upon the smaller craft from astern, at two or three times her speed. The transport shivered from the keel to the masthead and then came apart. Shattered timbers were scattered in all directions and the flailing bodies of men and beasts were propelled into the air. The Argonaut's  momentum seemed unaffected by the disassembling vessel, as if she rode over a patch of open water. She quickly returned to her original course, continuing the pursuit while her sisters dealt with many of the other stragglers in a similar fashion.

The speed and efficiency with which the enemy fleet diced up the trailing ships was unsettling, but Antony watched the destruction with forced coolness for the sake of those around him. The slower transports would have to be written off. The majority of the convoy would make it, he kept telling himself.

A flaming ball arced across the sky and splashed into the water less than a ship’s length away from another transport. As Antony’s eyes followed the projectile’s path, he caught sight of Lucius down on the Vulcan’s  stern deck. He was dressed like a proper centurion now, wearing mail armor and a helmet adorned with a plume of yellow feathers that fanned from ear to ear. While the legionaries around him stood on their toes to see the action and the pursuit, Lucius casually leaned against the bulwark, thumbing the hilt of his gladius and appearing disinterested.

Antony chuckled inwardly. The big idiot had no idea how close he had come to walking into his own murder, and he seemed oblivious to the fact that Antony still held a grudge against him. Had the fool not been captured by the enemy fleet all those days ago, he would now be lying in some shallow grave alongside the road to Thessalonica.

Do you not see yet, Lucius, you imbecile? You embarrassed me in Spain, and I never forget a personal insult. I always get my revenge, in the end.  

While it was true Lucius had been an instrumental help ever since his return, Antony knew he would eventually have to do away with him. His own personal honor demanded it, notwithstanding the fact that the bothersome centurion was an atrocious bore. But there would be time enough for that, once the Raven had conferred upon him his new title.

“The Hammer of Rodon, General!" the Vulcan’s  captain called, pointing ahead.

Antony wheeled around to see a finger of land stretching out across the convoy’s path. The convoy had been cruising up the seaward side of a vast cape covered with high green hills that poked above white cliffs lining the shore. The lead ships had now arrived at the northern end of this cape, where a thin, hilly outcropping extended nearly a mile into the sea, and continued well beyond that as a scattering of dark, half-submerged rocks, some the size of Saturn’s temple. Mariners had dubbed it the Hammer of Rodon, and the name suited it well. Even from this distance, Antony could see the tumult of white surf surrounding it.

“This is what I warned you about, General,” the captain called up to him. “The wind comes at us from the South now. We should manage to weather the cape, if the wind holds. But if it doesn’t,…”

The captain did not finish, nor did he have to. The hundreds of foreboding black teeth, where the sea swirled and spouted, gave a clear enough indication as to what their fate would be should the winds shift. Antony sighed, knowing that he could be throwing away his legions, not to mention the gold riding in the holds.

Just beyond the cape, lay a vast bay lined with mile upon mile of gently sloping sand. The town of Nymphaeum was there, the agreed rendezvous with the Raven. Antony had kept the true reason for bringing his fleet this far north a secret. He had not even told his legates. No one else knew of his arrangement with the Raven but the silent Orestes, the dim-witted centurion, and that brusque eastern woman – whom he had ordered placed in irons until he indeed came face-to-face with her master. He had explained to his legates that a landing in this bay would place them in a perfect position to support Caesar, and they had not questioned him.

The bay was, in fact, quite the opposite. It was a good choice for avoiding Caesar's army entirely, for it was dozens of miles up the coast from the consul’s last known location. It would place Antony in a good position to join with Pompey's legions, which were closer than Caesar’s, and allow Antony to take command of the combined army. Then he would deal with Caesar, quickly and efficiently – and mercifully. For Antony bore no malice towards Caesar, but Postumus had been right. Had Antony continued to serve Caesar, he would have always been second to the great man. Now, with a powerful ally like the Raven behind him, his own prospects were far better. Who knows how long he would have to suffer the Raven's dictates before he had garnered enough power to have the enigmatic man and all of his followers rounded up and killed, but he knew it would happen. It was inevitable. Like his affability toward Centurion Lucius Domitius, his alliance with the Raven, would be only temporary.

“My mariner's blood advises against this, sir!" the captain called up to him skeptically, waiting for a decision, as the treacherous point of land drew ever closer. “If we must continue, sir, we must do so under oars alone.”

There was much risk, but there was so much to be gained. Would Libo follow him past the hazardous shoals? Or would he steer his fleet well out to sea to avoid the danger? If Libo chose the latter, then Antony would have won, for Libo would never be able to beat back into the bay against the wind and against the ocean currents in time to stop the landings. That is, presuming Antony’s own ships successfully weathered the cape. The only other alternatives were to surrender or fight.

There really was no choice.

“Auster be with us, captain! Auster’s lungs and Juno’s bouncing bosom!” Antony said loudly and enthusiastically, hoping to bolster the confidence of the grim-faced legates beside him and the open-mouthed legionaries below. “Take in the sails and row on! Put every last man on the oars if you must, but get me past that cape!”

XXXII

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"Shorten sail, Captain!” Libo shouted from the top of the Argonaut’s  forward tower. “And signal the rest of the fleet to do the same!"

In spite of the noise of the wind, he had no difficulty getting Naevius’s attention down on the main deck twenty feet below, for the captain was no novice seaman and had been expecting the order.

Boatswains began barking orders, setting dozens of sailors into motion, some loosening stays, others climbing into the shrouds to gather up the great sheets of canvas. Senator Postumus was the only other person on the tower with Libo, and he watched the sudden activity with confusion, for he could not understand why the admiral would give such an order. Why, indeed, when they finally had their prey by the tail?

Postumus had watched with some satisfaction as the cutting bows of Libo’s warships rammed and destroyed Antony's straggling transports, leaving behind a sea strewn with twisted wreckage and broken bodies. But the few scrapheaps they had managed to overtake certainly could not have carried any of the treasury gold in their holds. He suspected Antony would have placed the horde aboard the larger ships, and the vast majority of those still dotted the seascape only a few miles beyond the Argonaut’s  bows. They appeared to be ripe for the taking, cornered by the rocky coastline.

“What are you doing, Admiral?” he demanded. “Antony’s ships lay before us. You must press on and take them!”

“I wish for nothing more, Senator,” Libo shook his head. "But I am afraid I cannot. The enemy drives too close to the shore.”

“That coast helps us, man! If those ships happen to sink in the shallows, it will be that much easier for us to recover the gold. Do you not see?”

Libo glanced irritatedly at him and then pointed ahead at a hilly, jagged finger of land beyond Antony’s ships and stretching out into the sea. “Do you see that point of land, Senator? It is called the Hammer of Rodon. Do you know why?”

Postumus shook his head with impatience.

“Rodon is the Illyrian god of the sea,” Libo continued. “And he has smashed many a vessel on those rocks you see adorning its base. The wind blows from the south now, and, aye, I could possibly weather that point, but there is no assurance that the wind will not betray us. It would put the fleet in too great a peril, and I will not risk it. I am sorry, Senator. The gods do not favor us today."

"Do I speak with Libo,” Postumus snarled, feeling his blood boil, “or Bibulus risen from the dead? This is no time for your adolescent superstitions, Admiral! You were appointed to your command for your skills as a seaman, not your deference for the gods. Now, do your duty, and stop those ships!"

Libo turned his eyes away from the shore and eyed him coolly. "This is not superstition, Senator! Any sea captain knows it is foolery to take a ship near such a shore, with such a wind. Do you not see the enemy ships? Even they have shortened sail. Not even Antony is so brash as to stretch a single foot of canvas on the masts at such a time."

Postumus saw that this was indeed true. Where Antony’s ships had, only moments before, carried straining sails aloft they now drove on under bare masts.

"What do you propose to do then, Admiral?" Postumus demanded impatiently. “Can you not do the same and pursue him?”

“I cannot follow Antony without putting this entire fleet in jeopardy.”

“Surely, his ships cannot stand up against yours. You will have them cornered. They will be forced to fight.”

“It will put us on a lee shore, Senator. We cannot risk it. We will have to give that shoal a wide berth, much further out than Antony is attempting.”

Postumus could see that the lead ships in Antony’s convoy had already rounded the point of land and were now hidden from view, presumably headed into the bay beyond.

“Are there any good beaches beyond that cape?” Postumus asked. “Any place for Antony to land?”

“Yes, many.”

“Then you must drive straight at him, Admiral. We do not have time for your prudence! He must not be allowed to land the gold. You must overtake him now!”

“No, Senator!” Libo said adamantly. “We will go around.”

“You are a fool, a naive fool. You never should have been given this command!

"You may address that complaint to the Senate when I make my report, Senator. I'm sure they will be eager to hear how intricately you were involved in the operations of this fleet.” Libo turned away dismissively to face the fleeing craft.

Libo had said it in a snippety fashion, and Postumus understood his meaning quite clearly. Libo intended to expose him, to lay out all of his dealings with Antony before his colleagues. Of course, that would create a colossal scandal, since Postumus was not here on any mission of the Senate, nor had he ever been. He was here to protect the interests of the Raven Brotherhood. He was here to make sure the brotherhood secured the treasury gold and that Caesar and the Senate in Thessalonica never saw a single denarius of it, for the time of the Raven had come at last.

It was time for the man who had lived so long in the shadows to manifest himself to the world. The gold, now riding in the holds of Antony’s ships, was the key to his ascendency. Deprived of the gold, Caesar’s army would blow away on the next breeze. With the gold, the Raven would bribe the last few key senators that he needed to tip the balance of power in his favor. Pompey would be ostracized for incompetence, and the Raven would be appointed to take his place. The Senate-in-exile would make it all look very official. They would appoint him dictator, with the commission to restore the republic – but he would do so much more than that. Rome and her great empire were too large to be governed by ancient rules concocted when she was nothing more than a fledgling kingdom. She needed a stronger leader – one all-powerful man to put an end the quagmire that the Senate had become, one unassailable leader to end the mockery of the voting assemblies.

Rome needed an emperor.

Up until now, the botched plan had been recoverable, providing the treasury gold was seized. But where was Antony taking it? Surely not to Caesar. Not this far north. Whatever Antony’s destination, Libo did not seem willing to put his fleet at risk to stop him.

At that moment, Postumus decided that he had suffered the young admiral long enough. It was time for action. It was time to salvage the situation before all was lost.

Postumus carefully eyed the two steps of planking between him and Libo. They were alone on the tower, and Libo was turned away from him, leaning out against the tower’s low bulwark while watching the fleeing armada. With cold calculation, Postumus waited for the ship to roll over the next wave, and then he acted. Rushing forward, he shoved Libo with all of his weight. Postumus was older, and the warrior in him long since dormant, but he was a much larger man than Libo, and had little difficulty in knocking the distracted admiral off balance. Libo was taken completely by surprise. His groping arms reached for the rail, but too late to stop him from toppling over the edge. He flipped once, falling with a single shout of shock and anger before impacting the deck twenty feet below.

After hearing the unmistakable thud, Postumus glanced once over the rail to confirm that the admiral’s form indeed lay on the deck below and was unmoving. By the time the senator had climbed down to the main deck, a cluster of officers had gathered around the body. Postumus was met by his bodyguard who had been waiting at the base of the tower, and then by Naevius who had been with the group hovering over the fallen admiral but who now rose as the senator approached.

"Does he live?" Postumus asked the captain briskly.

"He still draws breath, your excellency, but…" the captain stammered, looking from the senator to the high platform and then back again, a hesitant suspicion on his face. "Were you not upon the platform with the admiral?"

"Yes, indeed I was, captain. Your admiral is very fortunate to be alive. Evidently, when the ship took that last roller, he lost his balance and fell."

Naevius looked at him in disbelief, but Postumus dismissed it. It did not matter whether this insignificant man believed it or not. He was growing tired of pandering to these petty fools. “Now, captain. We have no time to lose. You will please make haste and deploy the sails again."

"Deploy them, sir?"

"Was I not clear?"

"Yes, Senator. It's just that…the admiral -”

"Your admiral lies bleeding and unconscious at your feet, captain, and the enemy is getting away!" Postumus said red-faced. "Now set the damn sails and get those oars moving. Whip the damn rowers until they scream, for all I care, but I want speed out of them. We are going after Antony's fleet!"

At that moment, Calpurnia emerged from the cabin, the two slave girls behind her. She glanced once at Libo's still form and then looked at Postumus with disgust in her eyes, as one beholds a snake with the lump of a half-digested field mouse in its gullet.

"What transpired here, Senator?" she said poisonously. "Did Admiral Libo get in your way, too? Or did he simply discover who you really are?"

Postumus fumed inside. He had had enough of her, of Libo, of the incompetent idiots of the fleet, the army, all of them. He snapped a finger at Naevius. "You will run up those sails and stop Antony from entering that channel or I'll have you scourged before the fleet! Do not shorten sail again until I give you express permission to do so. Is that clear?"

The captain nodded reluctantly and began giving orders.

Postumus then turned back to face Calpurnia. Her eyes still bore malice but they soon changed to fear as he darted to her in three steps and grabbed her arm with enough pressure to bring tears to her eyes.

"You are coming with me, my dear!" he said through gritted teeth, then turned to his bodyguard and pointed at the slave girls. "Her ladyship and I are going below for a private conference. Slay them both if either tries to follow!"

The girls shrank back at the threat and the sight of the exposed blade in the large warrior’s hand, and Postumus, with the frightened Calpurnia in tow, disappeared down the aft hatchway. They descended ladder after ladder, the senator nearly throwing her down one landing after another, until they were in the dank hold, only lit by the narrow shaft of light emanating from the hatch above.

He pushed her down onto the deck and stood over her, a savage, hateful expression on his age-lined face.

“You dare lay your foul hands on a lady of Rome?” she said brazenly, trying not to reveal how frightened she was.

“A lady, no,” he said sinisterly. “The strumpet daughter of a half-mad buffoon, who meddles in affairs of which she has no comprehension, yes. A little girl who has taken it upon herself to throw off the course of an empire by her own personal vendetta. This is not a lady of Rome who now lies before me. A true lady of Rome knows her place. A true lady of Rome does not involve herself in the dealings of men. You are a mere child, with a child’s understanding of the world.”

“This child has a sufficient grasp to have discovered who you really are, Senator,” she said, angered at the condescension in his voice. “Your actions confirm all of my suspicions. You are the Raven!”

At this, Postumus roared back with laughter, a maniacal full-bodied laugh. It was the first time Calpurnia had seen him truly amused.

“My dear lady Calpurnia, wherever did you get such a fantastical idea?”

When she did not answer, he tore open the neck of his tunic and bared his chest to her. A crop of white hair adorned the muscles that were sagging with age, but there was no raven tattoo, nor a mark of any kind. She stared in disbelief as the reality of it sank in. She had been so certain, and now she was confused. How could she have been wrong about Postumus? And if he was not the Raven, then who was?

Then, she suddenly remembered the cloaked man she had seen discoursing with Postumus at her father’s funeral. His face had been hidden, shadowed by a hood on that drizzly day. He had spoken to Postumus at great lengths in a manner that suggested he was his equal, if not his superior. Might that man have been the true Raven?

She sighed, flustered by her own hasty assumptions. Now she was guessing. Grasping at straws.

“It does not matter,” she finally said, trying to remain composed. “If you are not the Raven, then certainly you are one of his henchmen. You are a member of their sect. Whoever the master is, you do his bidding.”

“I will not deny it, my lady,” he said, now seemingly entertained by her discomfort.

“Then you are responsible for my brothers’ deaths, no less than your master. It was your associates who murdered my brothers, and then left the signet of the black Raven with their mutilated bodies as a warning to my father.”

Postumus laughed again. “Let me ask you, my lady, was it you who first discovered this ring among your brothers’ personal effects?”

She did not know why he asked this, but she wanted to keep him engaged that she might discover more. “It was as I told you before. My brothers’ things had been placed in my father’s study. Naturally, my father must have also seen it.”

“And he made no mention of it? Do you not find that odd, my lady?” He was speaking to her as a tutor leads a student to an answer. “Allow me to propose a different scenario, since you have made great leaps of hypothesis and are too ignorant to see the gaps in your own logic.”

She wanted to tell him to shut his mouth, to stop his lying tongue, but she could not, for the answer was beginning to dawn on her, even as he continued.

“The signet of the black Raven, my dear girl, is sacred to the brotherhood – or the sect, as you call it. It is a symbol of authority. You no doubt deduced this, since you used the one found in your father’s chamber to mark that false letter to Antony.”

She began to protest ignorance of this, but was stopped by a wave of his hand.

“Don’t bother denying it, my dear. It is very clear to me now. We in the brotherhood errantly assumed that your father had sent the letter, which is why he was killed. But now I see very plainly that it was you all along. You sent that message, hoping to spawn a ripple in our secret communications that would ultimately expose the Raven’s identity. Very clever, my dear, though foolish and futile as you will soon learn.”

“You murdering blackguard!” She said enraged, clenching her dress in her fists and unable to curb the tears streaking down her cheeks.

“Do not put on such a show, my lady, for you long suspected that he was murdered. Yes, we did kill him. But surely, now you can see that you were partly to blame.”

“I?” She said incredulously.

“As I said before, you meddle in affairs you do not comprehend.” His lips made the smallest smile before he continued. “Did you know, my lady, that only the inner circle of the Raven Brotherhood is permitted to possess the signet ring of authority? The rings are used only to issue orders to other members of the brotherhood. Each ring is different, slightly altered, so that the recipient of the message can identify the sender simply by examining the mark.” He eyed her slyly. “It was not through any random deduction that we suspected your father of sending that letter to Antony, for you made your forgery well, my dear, when you used that ring to seal it. Your father’s mark was clearly visible.”

Calpurnia felt a numbness overtake her as she realized where he was steering her.

“Then the ring I found -” she started.

“Was your father’s, yes,” he finished her thought. “Your father was a member of the Raven Brotherhood, my dear.”

Her world felt turned on its side. Was it possible? Could it be that her father belonged to such a repugnant, secretive society, who disregarded the age-old procedures of the forum and made their moves in the shadows? Her head spun as she was faced with the stark reality of it, and she was finding it hard to breathe.

“He had become quite a burden to us in his final days,” Postumus continued, ignoring her distress. “You see, he defied us when he sent your brothers to Egypt. Your father was convinced that Caesar could not be defeated unless the brotherhood made an alliance with Ptolemy’s heirs. He felt that securing the grain of Egypt should be our paramount objective. Our master, the Raven, disagreed. But your father was insistent to the point of obsession – to the point of sending his own sons to negotiate with the Egyptian court in direct defiance of the Raven’s will. Your father gave your brothers his own ring as a symbol of their authority that they might negotiate on behalf of the brotherhood, an authority our master had not granted. We in the brotherhood were left with few options. Your brothers were killed to head off your father’s pig-headed imprudence. He had left us with no choice. The ring you used to seal your forged message to Antony bore your father’s distinctive mark. This was recognized by our agent on Antony’s staff, and he immediately informed the Raven of your father’s assumed treachery. The Raven naturally suspected that your father was trying to craft some deal with Antony in retaliation for your brothers’ murders. He was killed for this reason, and this alone. So, you see, my dear, it was all your doing.” He smiled devilishly at her stunned expression, and then added with mock pity, “It must feel terrible knowing that you murdered your own father.”

She wanted to leap at him, to scratch his eyes out, to choke him, but she knew any such effort would be easily overpowered by the large man.

“I have done nothing other than the duty of any daughter, of any sister,” she said through watery eyes. “I have sought to avenge my loved ones, and I will have succeeded on the day that you and your cronies are dragged before the Senate as criminals.”

A sudden iciness befell his countenance, and he slowly moved towards her.

“Such a day shall not come, Lady Calpurnia,” he said sinisterly. “And you are wrong. You have done far more than the duty of a daughter. You have interfered in the affairs of a man ten-times more powerful than your father, or any other man in Rome. And now you will tell me what foolishness you have wrought with Antony this time.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Your schemes do not elude me. Your handmaid, that Syrian woman, has not been seen since the fleet was off Brundisium.” He grabbed her arm and squeezed it tightly with a surprising strength. “We are alone, my dear. There is no one that will heed your screams. And now you will tell me where that woman has gone. Did you send her to Antony? Did she carry another of your forged messages? Why does Antony drive his fleet toward Illyricum? Tell me, damn you!”

“No!” she cried as his grip moved from her arm to her throat. “I don’t know! I have sent no message!”

“You li


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e!” he snarled, his face now contorted with rage. “Tell me, or I’ll wring your neck here and now!”

His face was a hand’s breadth from hers, so close that his saliva spattered her lips as he spoke. She could not break free from his iron grasp no matter how much she struggled. The large, strong fingers were crushing her throat, slowly and deliberately. She found it harder and harder to draw breath and suddenly realized that Postumus intended to murder her whether she gave him an answer or not. She felt the blood in her bloated face and then began to lose feeling as his grip slowed the lifeblood from flowing to her brain. She felt herself go limp, her struggling hands losing all of their strength.

But then the grip suddenly lightened, and then was not there. He released her and she fell to the deck, and as she looked up at his tall form above her, she realized that he was not looking at her. Something had drawn his attention away, something in the shadows, and the lined face of the old senator seemed almost white with fear in the dim light.

She heard a great cry from the shadows, a piercing, bestial cry. Postumus stared back into the darkness as though he gazed upon his own corpse in the grave.

“What devilry is this?” She heard him say in terror. “Stay away from me! Stay away, damn you!”

But the next moment a shadow surged from the darkness, bounding across the lit space on its hair-covered arms in the interval of a heartbeat. It breathed heavily and seemingly grunted in anger as it rushed the terrified Postumus. But it stopped short of laying its large hands on the senator. There was no need, for the big man now clutched his chest, his face frozen with fright. A hollow sinking sound escaped from his open mouth before he collapsed to the deck, falling onto his side opposite Calpurnia, his wide eyes unblinking in the lamplight.

In her final moments of consciousness, Calpurnia felt giant hands upon her. But these were not the rough hands of Postumus. Though repellent in aroma and calloused like leather, the hands that held her now had a gentle aspect. They tenderly cradled her face and stroked her hair, accompanied by a muffled whimpering as the world around her fell to darkness.

XXXIII

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A splash of spray bounded over the bulwark and doused Libo’s prostrate form, reviving him. He opened his eyes to find that he was being attended to by the Argonaut’s  physician and several assistants. As the elusive memories of the sea chase and his own fall from the tower slowly fell into place, he felt a cascade of pain seemingly tap every nerve whenever he tried to move his shoulder or his arm. It was not to be outmatched by the ringing throb in his head that urged him to close his eyes once again, to drift back into sublime unconsciousness and shut out the frenzy of activity all around him. He might have surrendered to that urge had his eyes not beheld the vast canvas sheets stretched to their full height above him, or had his ears not heard the protesting creaks of the straining masts.

Ignoring the pleas of the physician and the shooting pains in his body, Libo struggled upright, pulling on the shoulder of the nearby attendant until he was on his feet.

“Where are we?” he demanded almost incoherently. “Where is Postumus? Where is Naevius?”

As the deck hands passed the word for the captain, Libo found his way to the rail to survey the situation. The Argonaut  and her sisters were flying before the wind, under all sail, their bows plunging in and out of the white-capped waves. They drove north, the southerly wind at their backs, the white-trimmed shoals of the rocky coast to starboard, the open sea to larboard. Just ahead, the rocky promontory stretched to a point that it nearly lay in their path. His own ships were perilously close and would only just narrowly avoid the shoals on this course. Libo could see that, with the southerly wind at their backs, his fleet had overtaken several more transports and was near to pouncing upon the crowded center of the fleeing convoy, which had only just rounded the point and was now heading into the bay. It had not been the distended sails alone that had allowed Argonaut  and her consorts to close the distance so quickly. The rapid beat of the drums rang out in Libo’s throbbing head, and he could discern from the accelerated slap of the oars that they rose and fell at ramming speed – an exertion usually saved for the moments before impact. The intermittent white feathers alongside the other ships in the fleet told Libo that they, too, were pushing their rowers to keep station with the flagship. How long the oarsmen had been under such exertion he could not guess, but it had placed the fleet in a position to overtake Antony. Now, try as they might, the fifty-odd lumbering ships ahead would never reach the landing beaches before the onrushing rams of the Argonaut  and her sisters caught up with them.

It was perfect, but for one flaw. Libo’s ships had been put at much risk to get to this point, and were still in a most hazardous position. The victory would not be sealed until they successfully rounded the cape, as the enemy had already done. The rocks were so close that Libo could hear the waves crashing against them.

“Admiral!” Naevius appeared beside him wearing a smile of relief. “Bless Neptune, you’re alive, sir! We thought -”

“I commanded you to take in all sails, captain!” Libo snapped, his head screaming from pain and anger.

“But, sir, the senator ordered – ”

“Get the courses in now, damn you! Are you blind? Do you not see the shoals to starboard?”

“But, you see, sir, the wind has held steady.” Naevius sounded somewhat apologetic. He pointed at the tell-tale streamers up in the rigging. “It hasn’t shifted so much as a point in the last hour. And the enemy fleet is within our grasp, sir.”

Libo suddenly felt off-balance. He put a hand to his temples, uncertain whether his throbbing head had him hallucinating or if the captain truly did not comprehend the danger.

“The transports now lie within reach of our oars,” Libo managed to say once his head cleared again. “There is no need for so much canvas aloft! Why have you not shortened sail?”

“The senator gave orders, sir. He was very explicit. He told me that I was not to – ”

“To hell with the senator!” Libo interrupted, the reason for the captain’s foolhardiness suddenly clear to him. “Is the fleet entrusted to him or to me? You should know better, captain! Where in Hades is the bastard!”

The captain’s eyes flashed to the aft hatch. “Below, with the lady Calpurnia, Admiral.”

It was coming back to Libo now. He could distinctly remember being pushed from the tower. Postumus had tried to murder him. In his feverish desire to get his hands on the treasury, the old bastard had taken command, and had now put the whole fleet at risk.

“Get the sails in.” Libo commanded. “Do it swiftly. And signal the fleet to do the same.”

“Aye, sir!” Naevius saluted promptly and hurried off.

Libo was about to order a file of marines to go below and arrest the senator, when a shrill sound filled the air. It came from below and above, and seemingly everywhere at once, sharp and distinct above the wind and sea. It was a cry like none he had ever heard before, and unlike that of any creature known to man – a bottomless cry of lamentation, of immeasurable vexation, of uncontrollable rage, that penetrated the very soul.

“’Twas the phantom of the lower decks!” he heard a sailor mutter to another beside him. “The spirit of the augury! He’s come back to summon us all to our graves!”

Many of the sailors seemed to take this explanation to heart, and this sparked more murmurs of dread spreading throughout their ranks. Libo was about to strike the man for being a superstitious fool, but paused when the wind suddenly and inexplicably stopped. The sails luffed above their heads and then lost all shape, falling useless like drapes. As the buffeting wind lost its fervor, the cry of the beast remained, solitary and full of anguish, like the far-off song of a whale.

No man on deck spoke. They stared at one another in apprehensive uncertainty. The bestial howl eventually faded into nothingness, but no sooner had it diminished than another far off chorus of alarmed voices filled their ears. The cry came from one of the quinqueremes keeping station off the Argonaut’s  larboard beam. Every eye on the flagship’s deck looked to see that the quinquereme’s sails had suddenly filled, whipping around and jerking her masts to starboard. The wind had returned, and this unfortunate ship was the first to feel its full force – only, the wind did not come from the south this time.

This time, it came from the west.

Libo’s heart sank as the ultimate horror of all sea captains materialized before his eyes. The shift in the wind now put his entire fleet on a lee shore. He heard Naevius’s voice behind him cursing, yelling, desperately imploring the mesmerized sailors to take in the Argonaut’s  canvas before the gale reached her, but Libo knew that his efforts were too late.

As a large wave placidly draws the sea away from the beach only to unleash it again with magnified ferocity, the wind hit now with twice its former strength. It struck with a fury, blasting over the larboard rail, filling the sails and thrashing them to starboard, the masts straining as they felt the new force. The broad side of the hull also acted like a sail, catching the wind and adding to the pull of the groaning masts, slowly tipping the Argonaut’s  bowsprit to starboard, steering the ship’s momentum towards the rocky shoals. The same chain of events played out across the entire fleet, in every ship, as each was taken by surprise and pushed in the direction of the coast. The oarsmen, having spent themselves maintaining such high speed in the final leg of the pursuit, had not the strength to fight the elemental forces that now so abruptly commandeered their vessels. As the ships were driven towards their destruction all efforts seemed to be in vain. Some tried employing the oars on only one side in an attempt to turn away from the coast, but every exposure of their broad beams to the face of the wind only succeeded in pressing them faster toward the foaming rocks. Anticipating the order to shorten sail, the captains throughout the fleet kept their eyes on the flagship, waiting dutifully for the signals that were too late in coming. Only a scant few chose not to wait and ordered their top men to hack away the sails, releasing the shredded canvas to whip violently in long streams from the masts. These were the fortunate ships, for some were able to regain control and point their bows back to the open sea. But they were few in number, and consisted mostly of the more agile triremes. The vast majority of the fleet, including all of the capital ships, drove headlong into the shoals as if obeying the summons of the sirens. A cacophony of thunderclaps rumbled above the howling wind as, one by one, the warships ran onto the rocks. The shifting seas lifted the majestic prows high into the air, only to recede beneath them and dash them to pieces on the jagged outcroppings, staving in keels, toppling masts, and snapping great oaken spines like twigs. Men screamed as they were crushed to death by the great disintegrating hulls, or thrown into the raging froth to drown. The same fate was shared by dozens of ships along miles of foaming coastline, where deceres, hexaremes, quinqueremes and several dozen more vessels, each finely crafted and taking months and vast sums of money to construct, were reduced to splinters in a matter of moments.

Amid the carnage, the Argonaut  was raised and carried forward with each successive surge of the green water. A spiked rock formation twice her size lay unavoidable in her path. But she drove on flying the colors of her admiral, and of old Rome.

XXXIV

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Every man crowded aboard Antony’s transports watched with elation as ship after ship of the Optimates fleet foundered before their eyes. The legionaries cheered lustily when the giant Argonaut  drove onto a rock and was left high out of the water by an ebbing wave, teetering there for a few heartbeats before her spine broke against the weight of her three decks, the sickening sound of the fracture resounding across the distance. She broke into two giant tumbling pieces, oars twirling in the air, masts falling with fluttering sails still attached. At the receding of the next wave, nothing remained but a mass of snapped timbers and twisted sheets.

From the stern deck of the Vulcan , Lucius watched the ruin, astounded at how quickly the massive Argonaut , which had seemed so indestructible when he had walked her decks, was reduced to flotsam. He heard an uproar of laughter coming from above and looked to see a cluster of legates and staff officers observing the same devastation from the Vulcan’s  tower. Antony was there, looking very regal in a purple cloak and bronze cuirass, a superior smile affixed to his face as though he already wore the dictatorship. The bastard appeared pleased with himself, freely accepting the heaps of compliments bestowed on him by the other officers, as if he alone and not fortune had been responsible for the successful crossing. Lucius did not know what bothered him more, the bastard Antony or the bootlickers that swarmed on the next up and coming man like blood-sucking mosquitoes, hoping to endear themselves to the powerful man regardless of his virtues. Antony was having such a good time as the center of attention that Lucius was tempted to march over and reveal to those arse-kissers Antony’s true intentions, but he did not. There would be time for that later.

Savor the meat that it be sweeter in the consuming, he told himself.

He looked back out at the line of shoals, now littered with the hulks of ships, and began to wonder at the fates of Libo and the fair Calpurnia. Were they among the hundreds of heads that now bobbed in the foam about the rocks? He could not fathom how one might escape such a violent space. Even the few figures that managed to scramble onto the higher shoals were soon picked up and dashed to death by the unpredictable pulses of the sea. The smaller triremes and biremes were struggling to stay off the rocks themselves, but a few were dutifully venturing closer in to pick up survivors. Perhaps Calpurnia and Libo were among those they now pulled from the sea. Perhaps Postumus was as well, though he hoped not. That was one gray head he would like to stave in with an oar, had he the chance.

As Lucius stood there, watching the milling ships in the distance, thinking of the treacherous senator, it suddenly occurred to him that something did not quite add up. Postumus had chosen to ship aboard the Argonaut  undoubtedly to make certain that he was the one to keep the secret meeting with Antony. But if the original letter arranging the meeting was sent by Calpurnia, and not by him, then how could Postumus have known about it? True, the senator claimed to have informants in Antony’s camp, but surely these would not have been privy to such intimate details. Antony was a mule’s arse, but he was crafty enough to keep such information confidential. Even Marcellus, Jupiter rest his blackened bones, had not been allowed to carry a written document and had been instructed to commit Antony’s reply to memory. Somehow, the message that Marcellus had imparted to Lucius with his dying breath had made it to Postumus’s ears as well.

Lucius thought hard, trying to recall that night, weeks ago, at Antony’s house in Rome, when he had been the centurion of the watch, when Marjanita had arrived bearing the forged letter. He had conveyed her to Antony’s chambers, and had remained at the door when he announced her arrival, as was the custom, since it was impossible to guess what state of undress or sexual engagement the promiscuous general might be in. Antony had appeared at the door, drunk as usual, and reeking of wine. He had not allowed Lucius to enter, nor had Lucius wanted to. Lucius simply turned the cloaked Marjanita over to Antony, who eyed her with curious amusement as he ushered her into the room, and then Lucius had left and had not seen the woman again that night. But, in the far recesses of his mind, he seemed to remember hearing laughter and voices before the general answered the door. Might not someone else have been in the room with the general prior to Marjanita’s arrival?

Antony was still on the quarterdeck, surrounded by his cortege of officers and advisors. Was it possible that one of those men had been with the general that night? Was it possible one of them had heard Marjanita’s message, and had sent a courier off to Postumus informing the senator of the secret rendezvous, the orange pennant, of everything? If that were true, and one of those smiling, adoring officers was indeed an agent of Postumus, what would he do now that the senator had failed to stop Antony’s legions and the treasury gold from crossing the sea? Would there not be a final contingency plan in place – a catchall solution for stopping Antony, should all other plans fail? If that was the case, then Antony was in great danger, for now would be the time to put such a plan into execution, before the legions got ashore, while they were still a disorganized mass scattered across dozens of vessels. If an assassin’s blade lurked among that tight cluster of cloaked officers, it might very well be inching toward the general at this very moment.

Lucius was not sure he really wanted to save Antony. He was sure the blowhard of a general still had it out for him, and would take the first opportunity to send him on some perilous errand hoping to be rid of him. But, still, a quick death was too good for Antony. Lucius wanted a much more satisfying reprisal. He wanted to see the bastard squirm in his boots, and that kind of gratifying revenge would only happen if Antony lived.

At that moment, Lucius resolved to do whatever he could to save the bastard.

But who was the traitor? He could not simply stroll up to the general and ask him who had been with him in his quarters that night. If it was one of the aides hovering about Antony, Lucius would have no way of knowing. They were all bedecked to some degree in arms and armor. Any one of them might, at any moment, bury his blade in the distracted general’s back before Antony’s bodyguards could react.

A thought then crossed Lucius’s mind, and he cursed himself for not thinking of it sooner. There was no way he could get Antony’s attention without causing a commotion, and there was no way that he could identify the traitor, if such a traitor existed – but he knew of someone who could.

XXXV

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"Deck ho!" The lookout atop the mast head called. "Flags on the shore. Three leagues ahead!"

Antony looked, as did everyone else, to see a scarlet pavilion that stood halfway up the white sandy strip ahead. As the Vulcan  drew closer, pulling up the bay with the long line of transports astern, he could see that the pavilion was flanked by fluttering banners, also of scarlet, beneath which he could just make out a guard of Roman horsemen, heavily armored and holding lances upright.

"There it is!" Antony could not help but exclaim. "Just as the woman said!”

He was practically salivating, beaming from ear to ear.

“Someone waiting to receive us, my lord?” one of the legates asked curiously. “Who is it?”

"Signal the fleet to land there," Antony ordered, ignoring the man.

The confused expressions all around Antony did not worry him. They were all Roman knights, sworn to serve him. Theirs was not the concerns of politics and who ruled Rome. They only followed orders, or at least that is what he hoped. They had served under him through campaigns across Gaul, and now he felt certain they would follow him, even if he suddenly announced that he was taking command of the entire Optimates army, and combining their legions with Pompey’s to deal a death blow to Caesar. They would change with him. They would have to. For he had the money, and when the hob-nailed boot met the paving stone, money was all that really mattered to this band of mercenaries who loosely called themselves Roman patriots. Stop paying them, let their families starve in their homes, and see how long these so-called patriots would remain in camp.

It was laughable at times, how easily soldiers were manipulated.

As the three dozen craft turned sharply to put the land across their bows, Antony descended to the main deck and called for a mirror to check that his newly polished bronze cuirass still carried its shine, for he wished to look the part when he met his new lord for the first time. An inner peace came over him, such as he had not felt in years. The Raven was a bold man of power – a man like him. He undoubtedly had no problems wielding that power wherever and whenever he saw fit. This contrasted sharply to Caesar whose reluctance to be heavy-handed with his own authority had always annoyed Antony. Antony had never quite understood Caesar’s insistence on making everything legal. Why should one undergo such posturing if one had total control?

As Antony looked in the mirror, tucking and draping his cloak in a dozen different ways, he did not see the razor sharp pugio dagger that approached him steadily, and with purpose.

“General!” a cry came from far up forward. “General, look out! The eunuch!”

Antony swung around to see the stringing blonde hair and maddened face of Orestes, as the eunuch charged forward at him thrusting the glimmering dagger. Antony side-stepped the swipe, escaping a killing thrust aimed at his groin. Orestes was not a warrior, and the desperate lunge had sent him off balance, toppling him to the deck. Within moments, Antony’s bodyguards were there, thrusting their gladii into the paunch man’s belly and neck. Orestes screamed a high-pitched, frustrated shriek as jab after jab pierced his fleshy form, painting his pale skin crimson, like a pig being slaughtered. Antony was still dumbstruck and watched with horror as Orestes stared back at him with venomous eyes that bore a deep-seated hatred of which he had not been aware. The startling revelation that his closest advisor and confidant had tried to kill him, left him unnerved and wondering who had put the traitor up to it. The eunuch expired in an expanding pool of blood, and during that brief time, Antony was able to compose himself and put on a confident air.

“Throw this refuse to the fish!” he commanded. “Who was it that called out and alerted me to this treason?”

“We know not, sir,” one of the bodyguards replied as the others heaved the eunuch’s lifeless bulk over the side. “Do you wish us to find the man?”

The deck was crowded with hundreds of legionaries in full kit, preparing to disembark. Most had been too absorbed in the preparations to even witness the attack. Did he really wish to search for the man? Such inquiries would only spread rumors of the assassination attempt throughout the army.

“No,” Antony said. “It is not important. Let the man come forward of his own volition if he wishes any reward.”

Antony looked at the shore where the pavilion sat with the billowing banner.

No, nothing was going to ruin this day. Fortune smiled on him this day. Today he would take the first step on the path to making the world his own. He would use this Raven’s connections and wealth, and become the Alexander of Rome.

XXXVI

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Lucius watched Antony from amongst the mass of troops on the main deck. A smirk appeared beneath his centurion’s helmet as he saw the posturing general check his appearance in the mirror again, and then call for a barber, evidently deciding that his beard needed a quick trim. The general appeared to have put the attempt on his life behind him and was now anticipating his meeting with the Raven.

While the approaching beach and the strange pavilion consumed everyone else’s attention, Lucius turned to look out beyond the opposite side of the ship. He could see the bay stretching away for several miles, and the far-off shoreline of the promontory on the other side of the watery expanse. As he watched, a figure emerged from the distant surf – a slim, muscled figure with slight curves and long dark hair, which shook wildly once it was clear of the foamy sea. Lucius smiled. Such a swim might have killed most, but it had been no problem for her.

It had taken him very little time to reach the hold, where Marjanita had sat, shackled with several other prisoners that Antony had decided to bring with him to Greece for one reason or another. Lucius had used his rank, and the promise of a few denarii, to convince the guards to release the woman into his custody. Marjanita had then watched him with distrustful eyes as he laid the deal out for her. Tell him who had been with Antony that night, and he would look the other way when she jumped over the side. After exhibiting some trepidation, she had agreed, and had pointed out the flowing blonde hair of Orestes across the crowded deck, just as the eunuch had drawn the dagger to attack Antony. Lucius had shouted the warning that had saved Antony’s life, and then had melted back into the activity on deck.

True to his word, Lucius had let Marjanita go.

She had said nothing to him before diving into the sea, her perfect form leaving hardly a splash on the surface. But, before she had jumped, they had shared a silent interval, in which she had turned back to look at him, her captivating, brown eyes studying him in a long, reflective gaze. It had only lasted for the space of a few heartbeats, but in that moment he felt as though she were etching his face into her memory. Whether it was out of some trace of warmth, or to remember him that she might cut his throat should she ever cross his path again, he did not know – but he chose to think on the former.

Now, as he watched Marjanita’s slim figure in the distance dart nimbly from the surf to the concealment of the brush, he was sorry to see her go. She had played her part well and had done everything Lucius had asked of her. That morning in front of Antony, she had performed flawlessly, telling him everything Lucius had told her to say. She had convinced the ambitious general that her message was authentic – and it was, to a certain extent.

Turning his attention back to the other side of the ship, Lucius gazed upon the scarlet pavilion and drew in a deep breath of satisfaction, content with the knowledge that he had fulfilled the dying request of a man he had been forced to kill – and that Antony’s world was about to turn upside down.

XXXVII

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The lumbering transports drove their keels to ground on the sandy slope like so many beached whales. Fifteen thousand armor-clad legionaries and auxiliaries spilled over the sand-wedged bows, dropping booted feet into shallow surf across a mile-wide front. With crossed spears held high, and bouncing kits across their backs, they came ashore, marching quickly up the steep slope to seek out their standards amidst clouds of the agitated powder. Behind them, quartermasters and engineers shouted above the surf as they drove thousands of protesting mules and horses down the steep ramps, each beast either overloaded with baggage or pulling artillery.

Antony strode up the beach amidst the assembling troops, magnificent in his gleaming plumed helmet and flowing cloak. He glanced once at the surrounding hills where a handful of his cavalry, mounted on the least traumatized of the horses, scouted for any sign of Pompey's army lying in ambush, in the event that this rendezvous was yet another ruse by the exiled Senate. But the cavalrymen's banners were upright and rigid, with no signal to indicate any threat was in sight.

The legate of the Thirteenth Legion broke into Antony’s silent reverie.

"But whose banner is that, General?" The legate asked curiously for the third time since they had debarked, pointing to the pavilion on the strand. "Who awaits us?"

Antony laughed. "Only the wealthiest and most powerful man in the empire, Fronto. Never fear. Stick with me and your service


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shall be rewarded ten-fold. Now, go and attend to your legion, General. Quickly, now. Let us put on a fine show for our distinguished host."

The legate appeared more confused than ever, but saluted and marched off briskly in the direction of his forming troops.

Antony was amused by the flustered expressions of his officers. They would know soon enough. They would all know.

Just up the beach before him stood the scarlet pavilion, the bodyguard posted outside as stoic as they had been for the last hour. Antony had to admit to himself that he was brimming with curiosity to discover the Raven's true identity. In just a few more steps, he would know. He had a few suspicions – a few of the less vocal senators who rode the back bench of the senate house and quietly observed from the shadows. Whoever the bastard was, he certainly had balls of bronze to travel with such a small escort and face a host that might wipe out his little band at a mere snap of Antony's fingers.

Antony did not consider doing this, of course. The potential rewards and power the Raven could yield for him far outweighed any gains he could achieve through treachery. There would be a time for that, later. Now, he would salute smartly and pledge his eternal allegiance and that of his army.

True, he felt a certain measure of shame for betraying Caesar, especially since Caesar had been so loyal to him through good and bad times. But this was Roman politics, and to survive in this game one must ally himself not with the man whom he called friend, but with the man who held the purse strings of the empire.

A nervous smile crossed Antony's face as the flap across the door to the pavilion was thrown back. He stood up slightly straighter and did his best to appear steadfast and confident. The next instant, a man ducked out of the darkened doorway and then stood to full height, his scarlet cloak whipping around his thin legs and boots. His eyes instantly met with Antony's, and it was all Antony could do not to audibly gasp, let alone keep from turning pale.

A solitary cry rang out from the beach as the figure was recognized. Others soon added their voices to the exultation, and still more, until the entire formation had come alive in a crescendo of elation that drowned out the curling waves and the beat of the wind. Then, like a concrete dam bursting into a thousand pieces all at once, the formations came apart. The legionaries rushed up the beach, many brushing past Antony as if he were not there. They surrounded the pavilion, their spear points twirling high above their heads, their faces scrunched into smiles beneath their constricting helmets as they cheered and cheered. Soon, they began chanting his name, the thrusts of their spears scraping the sky to the rhythm of their call.

As disturbing as was the jostling Antony had received from the maddened soldiers pressing in on all sides, restrained only by the outstretched, muscled arms of the bodyguard, the disruption had allowed him a brief interlude to properly compose himself before he once again faced the man whom his soldiers had lost all of their wits over. For, this was not the Raven that he had been so foolishly duped into believing, and the man’s name resounded in his ears, in his head, in his mind, as if each repetition accused him.

They chanted that name unceasingly, until he wanted to hold his hands to his ears. He wanted them to shut up. He wanted to order them all whipped and their units decimated. But he dare not let his face reveal such thoughts. So, he smiled warmly, returning the narrow gaze of the man before him who looked down on him with an all-knowing stare falling somewhere between contempt and complacency. But Antony only smiled wider, fully determined now to prove he was just as elated as the men around him.

Somewhere in the sea of buoyant faces, there was one that was not cheering. Antony saw it, and was surprised to see that this face, unlike all the others, was looking directly at him. The face was crowned by the cross-plumed helmet of a centurion, and it was set in an expression of smug amusement. It was, of course, that of Lucius Domitius, and he stared back at Antony as if he knew every thought, every skipped heartbeat, every inward moment of panic that had overcome him since the unexpected figure had emerged from the pavilion – and he appeared to take great pleasure in it. And suddenly, it all made sense to Antony, as if a veil lifted from his mind. He felt like a mule's ass, a feeling only slightly overshadowed by the rage that boiled inside him as all of his dreams of power and glory vanished before his eyes.

But, there was nothing to be done about it now. Someday, he would see to it that Centurion Lucius Domitius got what was coming to him. Of that eventuality, there could be no doubt. But for now, he needed to put on an amiable expression, and be the loyal lieutenant once again. With a smile that could satisfy for apology, relief, or thankfulness – and he would choose which of these it was, once he had a measure of the consul’s mood – he raised one hand in salute to his old commander and echoed the chant that reverberated to the clouds.

“Hail, Caesar.”

XXXVIII

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Calpurnia began to shiver as the icy waves revived her. She discovered the she was face down in the wet sand, and it took many long moments of choking and coughing up stinging grit and seawater before she could sit upright and survey her surroundings.

She sat on a white strand beneath a rocky coast. Her dress had been torn to rags and hung loosely on her bruised and chafed skin. Aside from the abrasions, the cold, and her unquenchable desire to gulp down fresh water, she appeared to be uninjured. The beach was strewn with wreckage. Splintered wooden beams, great clumps of cordage, and an assortment of other debris dotted the sand.

A stone’s throw away, several birds milled about the naked, outstretched body of a man. The man was dead, his skin pale blue and bloated. The body lay twisted and mangled, each limb bent unnaturally in two or three places, as if the sea and the rocks had worked together to snap every bone before depositing the wretched remains on the beach. The hollow, open-mouthed face was turned towards Calpurnia, and though it now bore little resemblance to anything human, she knew that it was Postumus. Whether the gods played tricks on her, or the ingested seawater now muddled her mind, she could not tell, but the dead senator’s face appeared to be frozen in the most horrified expression she had ever seen, as if he had been looking into the jaws of hell when he met his end.

There were other bodies on the beach, as well – probably sailors or marines from the Argonaut . They were all dead, drowned or dashed against the rocks by the tossing seas. Calpurnia could not guess how she had managed to survive, aside from the merciful grace of Juno. Her last conscious memory was of Postumus approaching her with murder in his eyes. The next thing she knew, she was here.

Was that all, or was there more?

Dreamlike images drifted through her mind, more feelings than tangible memories. She had the sense of being conveyed through the water by some force that was not her own, of a gnarled mouth with putrid breath huffing and gargling near her face, of being held across the body by a giant hand that squeezed her upper arm to the point of numbness.

She drew aside her rag of a dress to inspect her arm. Yes, a bruise was there! She could clearly see a ring of discolored flesh where the powerful hand had clutched her and had not let go for some time – not to injure her, but to hold her tightly amidst the violent waves as she was pulled to safety.

It had not been a dream. She had been saved, not by the gods, but by…

It was at that moment when she saw them. The moist sand all around her was riddled with the twig-like prints of countless sea birds, but there was one set of tracks that was not left by any bird. The prints of two giant hands appeared at regular intervals along the beach with two shallow trenches passing between them, where two stumps of legs had been dragged through the sand. The tracks climbed up the slope, and further on, until they were lost from sight in the rocky terrain.

Calpurnia tried calling his name, but her dry throat would not allow it. She tried to move. She desperately struggled to follow the tracks, but in her weakened state she could barely manage to crawl. After much exertion in vain, she collapsed from exhaustion.

She was still whispering his name when peasants from a nearby fishing village discovered her. The simple Illyrians knew from the poor woman’s ornate rag of a dress that she was a noble of some kind, and they treated her with all of the necessary proprieties. They surmised that she had survived a shipwreck and that she must be Roman, but none could understand the meaning of the word she incessantly repeated between her parched lips.

“Odulph…Odulph…Odulph,” she whispered, over and over again.

They tried to calm her and pleaded with her not to speak, but she was too delirious to hear them. With much compassion and gentleness, the villagers conveyed the incoherent woman away from the wind-swept strand. They took her to their community, where a warm home was found to start the slow process of nursing her back to health. There, they cared for the great lady and saw to her every need.

XXXIX

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“My dear, Libo, is that you? We thought you dead. Come in, my dear friend. Come in and sit down.”

Pompey’s weathered, round face wore a welcoming expression as he met Libo at the entrance of the tent. He waved away the orderly who had been assisting Libo, and took Libo’s arm himself, gently guiding the trembling admiral over to a glowing hearth. Libo still wore the same wet clothing he was wearing when he had been plucked from the sea, several hours ago.

“You are injured,” Pompey said with concern, looking at the red contusion on Libo’s forehead.

“No, General,” Libo replied. “It is nothing, sir.”

“My physician will be the judge of that. By the gods, Libo, you look dreadful. You are liable to catch your death in that wind. Sit down here. Please my friend. Sit down, and warm yourself by the fire.” Pompey then ordered a nearby servant. “A blanket for the admiral. And some dry clothes.”

Libo accepted a cup of wine offered by Pompey, and eagerly drained it in a few quick gulps. When he finished, and he began to feel the warmth of the fire and the spirits restore feeling to his extremities, he noticed that Pompey was watching him patiently. The general of all Optimates forces had settled his large frame into a chair opposite him and had a genuine look of concern on his face. Suddenly the tent seemed very quiet, but perhaps that too was merely his senses coming back to him. He could hear servants in an adjoining chamber preparing Pompey’s supper. In the camp outside, someone was shouting in anger – probably some centurion scolding a recruit. He heard creaking wheels driving away, and knew it was the chariot that had just bourn him on the fifteen mile journey from the coast, where he had been deposited by the trireme that had pulled him from the sea, to Pompey’s camp.

“I must apologize, General,” Libo finally said when his lips had thawed enough. “I have not yet given you my report.”

“Do not exert yourself, my friend. Take your time. You have had a devil of a day.”

Libo’s eyes instinctively followed the platters of cooked meats and baked bread as they were carried in by a handful of servants and set out on a nearby table. Pompey immediately noticed his interest.

“Perhaps some food would be in order, first, Admiral. After what you’ve been through, you must be starving. You will dine with me, and then after we can discuss -”

“All is lost, General!” Libo heard himself spit out the words between his own gritted teeth. “Forgive me, great Pompey, but I have failed. The fleet is lost!”

Pompey showed no anger at the outburst, but instead stared into the fire blankly. “So, it is true then. The reports we have received are accurate?”

Libo nodded, bowing his head in shame.

“How many ships lost?”

“Thirty-three. More than twenty damaged to the extent that they will require a long interval in port.”

“How many, then, remain fit for sea?”

“A dozen, possibly,” Libo forced the words out while shaking his head. “I do not know for certain, General.”

“And what of Antony’s legions from Italy?”

“They are now afoot in this country, General, landed some twenty miles north of here, at Nymphaeum. Their videttes are already patrolling the hills. My chariot was nearly waylaid by them on the way here.”

Pompey said nothing, but simply closed his eyes, as if pausing to digest this new threat. There was a long silence between them, but Libo could not withstand it any further.

“As you see, great Pompey, it is a complete disaster. I have brought the republic to complete and utter ruin!”

Pompey’s eyes opened and once again he met Libo with a pleasant smile. “Nonsense, my friend. All is not lost. As with most campaigns, fortune has thrown obstacles in our path, but all is not lost.”

“The fleet is lost, General. You now face Caesar’s combined army. What could possibly save – ”

“Have some more wine, dear Libo,” Pompey interrupted gesturing for one of the servants to refill Libo’s cup.

When the wine was poured and the servant moved away, Libo saw the general place one finger in the air, and then cut his eyes to the cluster of servants preparing the meal. Libo understood his meaning instantly, and the reason Pompey had cut him off so abruptly. The servants had obviously heard every word of his pessimistic rant. Should word reach the camp that the admiral of the fleet was under the general’s tent blathering the portents of doom, there was no telling how many would desert. Libo suddenly felt embarrassed for displaying his emotions in such a fashion, but Pompey was soon smiling at him with much sympathy, once again.

“Now, young Libo, while it is true that I would have much preferred to crush Caesar in the field before Antony could arrive, and while it is true that these new legions on my flank will force me to go on the defensive – temporarily, I might add – all is not lost. Dyrrachium is an excellent port. We can fortify her to suit our needs, I assure you. And do not forget, we have more food in Dyrrachium than Caesar and Antony will be able to find in all of Greece. Should we require more, we can resupply from the sea.”

“But, General,” Libo said in a more subtle tone, glancing once in the direction of the servants. “Less than half of our fleet remains to control the coast. We have a dozen ships at most.”

“It will be enough, Libo. Do not worry. With the seas in such turmoil this winter, and with the unexpected death of your predecessor, I had already anticipated that our fleet might meet with tragedy. Even now, my son Gnaeus travels to Asia Minor to enlist more ships and crews to our cause. The pirates of Cilicia owe me many debts. They will come. Fear not, by month’s end, we will have replaced our losses and will once again control the seas.”

“Suppose Caesar and Antony bring you to battle before then, sir.”

“I think it is safe to say, they will not.” Pompey smiled smugly. “I still outnumber them. I will make Dyrrachium impregnable, as I made Brundisium impregnable when we withdrew from Italy. Just as he did then, Caesar will pine away the weeks. One delay will lead to another. He may attempt a siege, but he will never be strong enough to attack. Scipio’s legions will soon arrive from the East, and we will once again have the upper hand. Whatever is left of Caesar’s starving, pathetic band will then be swept away like so much sawdust. Most will desert when they see the forces arrayed against them. Have no fear, Libo, we shall end the reign of this tyrant, one way or another.” Pompey’s voice then trailed off, as if a thought had suddenly crossed his mind. The smile left his face and he stared absently into the fire with unblinking eyes, his lined features, made more prominent in the orange glow. He drew a trace expression of sadness – or was it fear – as if he were in another time, another place, reliving some tragic memory deep in the past.

There was a long silence in the room, but Libo could not bear it any longer. He felt the shame weigh upon him like an anchor that could never be cast off.

“With your permission, great Pompey, now that I have discharged my duties in making this report to you, and wishing to bring no further dishonor to my family, I humbly ask to retire to some private quarters, that I may make my peace with the gods and commit suicide.”

Pompey came out of his trance and cast an odd look at Libo as if, for a moment, he did not recognize him. Then the general erupted in uproarious laughter.

“Nonsense, Libo! I will not hear of it! If there is one thing the republic will need when she rises from the ashes, it is honest men. You are an honest man, and I will not permit you to deprive Rome of your services, which I am sure will prove invaluable. Let us talk no more of suicide. I forbid it. Is that understood?”

“Yes, great Pompey.”

“There is one uncertainty, however, that you can clear up for me.”

Libo nodded, detecting that Pompey’s tone had changed and was now tinged with an air of suspicion.

“It has come to my attention that Senator Postumus was with your fleet as you blockaded the coast.”

“Yes, General. That is true.”

“I also understand that a meeting of sorts took place between Postumus and Antony, somewhere near Brundisium.”

“That is also true, sir. I was there, too.” Libo knew there was no sense in denying it. If Pompey knew about the meeting, then he surely knew who was in attendance. Pompey was testing him.

“And what business did the admiral of the fleet, and one of our most distinguished Senators, have with the enemy?” Pompey was no longer smiling. He was no longer the gentle old man. His face was now upturned, and he looked down at Libo with the same judgmental eyes that had condemned countless conquered peoples in his life.

Briefly considering Pompey’s earlier assertion that he was an honest man, Libo quickly contrived a half-truth. “The senator arranged the meeting with Antony, to discuss some personal matter that he would not share with me. He implored me to allow the meeting, and I acquiesced, hoping to capitalize on any opportunity to seize or slay Antony. I came very close to succeeding, but I was betrayed by a centurion of the Tenth whom I had taken into confidence.”

“Did you say of the Tenth? One of Caesar’s legions?”

“Yes, General. He was a captive who had convinced me he had come over to our side – one Lucius Domitius. A formidable fellow, but a liar and a traitor all the same. He shall receive due recompense for his treachery, if ever I lay eyes on him again.”

“And what became of Postumus?”

“I know not, General. I am told he went belowdecks just before my flagship foundered. The ship’s back was broken, and she came apart very quickly. More than likely, he was lost.”

Pompey nodded, apparently satisfied with his answers, and now appeared to turn his attention to the feast that had been laid out. From the adjoining chamber, came the sound of water being poured into a wash basin, and through the thin veil separating the rooms, Libo could see the figure of a man washing his hands while a servant poured the water for him. The man cleared his throat loudly as he completed his toilet. Libo was surprised, for he had not noticed him before. How long had he been there? At that moment, Libo realized that three places had been prepared at the table.

“Forgive me, General,” Libo said to Pompey. “I did not realize you had company. I do not wish to interrupt your dinner. With your permission, I will retire.”

“No, Libo. You are welcome. In fact, it is good that you are here. I wish to introduce you to one of our most generous supporters.” Pompey then called into the next room. “Come here, Marcus. There is someone I’d like you to meet.”

The curtain was pulled aside, and a refined man with short-cropped, gray hair entered the room. Somehow, Libo knew him to be around Pompey’s age, but in contrast to Pompey, this man looked young and vibrant in his movement and manner, and in nearly every other feature.

“You will forgive me. I could not help but overhear,” the man said, smiling with his lips but not his eyes. After drying his hands on a towel wrapped around his neck, he tossed the towel to a servant and approached Libo with an extended hand. But before the collar of his tunic fell back into place, Libo caught a glimpse of a faded black mark on the man’s upper chest. It was an old tattoo, and Libo’s mouth went dry when he realized what it was. He had only seen it for the briefest of moments, but he was certain of what he saw, and his mind reeled at the reality of it.

It was the profile of an open-mouthed raven.

“Marcus has been away from Rome for some time,” Pompey went on, patting the man on the back as he presented him to Libo. “But now he has returned to help us in our darkest hour. Admiral Libo, I have the honor of introducing you to Senator Marcus Valens.”

Unable to speak, Libo shook the offered hand.

“It is my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Admiral,” Marcus Valens said. “Please accept my deepest sympathies for the loss of your fleet. I hope you will not think it rude, if I ask you to indulge me by recounting the story as we dine – most especially, the tale of that centurion who betrayed you. What was his name again? Lucius Domitius, was it? I am most eager to hear everything you can tell me about him.”



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