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Authors: Michael Livingston

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BOOK: The Shards of Heaven
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Three weeks after he'd brought the Trident of Poseidon to Rome, two weeks after he'd used Octavian's coffers to send Laenas to Alexandria, Juba left the Forum and began walking the paved streets west through the colorful stone labyrinth of Rome, down toward the Tiber and Caesar's family villa beyond it. He wore civilian clothes, the sash and symbols of his estate left behind, and he tried, as he made his way through the winding streets between painted and columned estates, brick-walled inns, and the fluttering awnings of open shop windows, to imagine that he was an ordinary sixteen-year-old citizen of the Eternal City with few enough cares in the world.

But for all his appearance as a common, if foreign-born, man, Juba couldn't feel common in his mind. He was most uncommon. He had a chance to grasp the very power of the gods—if gods there were.

He'd thought much on that particular question since he'd found the Trident in Numidia: If Neptune and Poseidon were one, if their weapon could, in turn, belong to Moses, if Thoth and Mercury and Hermes could be the same god … was it possible that
the deities of the world were reflections of the same, single, united god? And, even more difficult to consider, if the man Moses could be so much like Neptune, was it possible that Neptune had been a man, too? Might it be possible that there were no gods at all, just men made divine in the memories of other men? Juba's adopted father, Julius Caesar, after all, had been declared an immortal god after his very mortal, very human murder.

That there might be no gods at all was a troubling thought, but it was also a thrilling one. It was an old adage that the clothes made the man. Wear the sash of office, as Juba had just an hour earlier in the Senate strategy sessions, and the people would treat you as an officer. Perhaps it was also true, then, that the weapons made the god.

Walking back to practice once more with the Trident of Poseidon, Juba considered this conclusion a point of much interest.

Coming around the fruit stalls of a shop on a blind corner, lost in his thoughts of gods and men, Juba barely had time to look up and see the legionnaire on horseback bearing down the street before he was upon him. Juba gasped and dove to the right to avoid getting hit. His body crashed into a stand of apples beneath a faded green awning, sending some clattering to the stone pavement, and the churning legs of the beast just barely missed him.

A messenger, Juba could see. Probably carrying dispatches from the port, updates on the enormous undertaking of sending the legions to Greece.

As Juba stared after the departing horse, the shopkeeper reached for a sawgrass switch and brought it down on his hand. “You ass!”

Juba recoiled in pain, startled. He saw the apples on the ground and instinctively began bending to pick them up. “Citizen, I—”

The switch came down again, with more force this time. “Keep your filthy hands off, slave!”

Juba staggered back into the flow of pedestrians that was moving in the soldier's wake and let it carry him away from the cursing shopkeeper.

Slave. How often had he been called that in this, his supposed home? He, an adopted son of Caesar himself, weighed and judged at a glance.

A just god, Juba thought, would change things, make them better. That things only seemed to get worse, in fact, might be proof that no just gods existed, perhaps no gods at all.

Juba felt a grin crossing his face even as he massaged the welt on his dark-skinned hand. If there were no gods to fix things, he'd just have to do it himself.

*   *   *

The villa beyond the Tiber that had once been Julius Caesar's now belonged to his adopted son, Octavian, and it was there that Juba had been given the most secure space they could think of in which to practice using the Trident of Poseidon. The compound had been breached just once that Juba had ever heard, and that on the day that Caesar died. But since falling to Octavian's hands, its walls had been built higher and stronger over the years, and a squad of praetorian guards—Octavian's loyal personal bodyguard—had been permanently assigned to protect its grounds. Juba and Quintus had been given rooms there, and a pavilion had been erected in its private garden to conceal Juba's work from outside eyes. No one, not even Quintus, was supposed to know what was going on within.

Juba entered the quiet villa in good spirits, glad that he'd had time after the morning's meeting to walk the streets of Rome. He'd often done so to clear his head, especially enjoying the dirtier, more traditional markets beyond the walls of the city, where the shopkeepers practiced their trades in the old ways that had been passed down from generation to generation. He felt especially at home amid the small knots of smithies that were dotted here and there amid the tangled sea of traders. The men who labored in them were a hard lot: hunchbacked from tending their fires, arms corded thick with muscle from swinging their tools, hearing partly gone from the constant crash and ring of metal, and skin permanently blackened—darker than his—from the soot. But they were an honest, hardworking lot. They were, Juba had always thought, the best of Rome. No surprise, then, that so many of them were, like him, from the provinces: either lured to Rome by the vast hordes of wealth that ebbed and flowed in and out of the Eternal City or brought there in chains as slaves who managed to win freedom enough to ply a trade. Walking among them helped remind him why Rome had to be stopped. This morning's encounter with the horseman and shopkeeper had underscored the matter even further, so he was anxious to begin practicing, to begin feeling the power of the Trident, to imagine once more the still-greater power of the Ark, which he hoped would be his in time.

The villa was customarily calm, a place of sanctuary for the family, away from the bustle of the city. Moving through its halls, Juba couldn't help but think of the happy times he'd spent here in his childhood, when he was too young to know the truth of the world. Slaves passed by him as he walked, their heads down and spirits broken as they carried linens or trays of food from one place to another. He heard yelling from one doorway, and the sound of a switch falling on a slave who hadn't done her duty properly.

Juba winced to hear the blows and the muffled screams, and he absently rubbed his hand. It made no sense that some people were born to hold the switch and others were born to feel it. Quintus, he knew, was a good man, as good a man as most of the free citizens he'd ever met. It made no sense.

I'll set him free, he thought. Once I'm free of Rome.

With no breeze this morning, the large tent in the garden stood as still as if it were built of stone. Beyond it, standing beside one of the statues near the wall, Juba could see a lone praetorian watching the rear of it, but there was no one else in sight. In his caution, Octavian had encouraged the guards to keep not only the servants but also themselves away from the tent. Juba, still smiling to himself, strode up to the tent and lifted the heavy flap to step inside.

To his surprise, the tent was not empty.

The low, makeshift wall along the back of the tent was there, of course, as were the numerous pots and jars and pitchers he'd practiced flinging against it. The three heavy barrels were there, too: sources for the water to fill the items, as well as objects for him to try moving when he felt he had the strength. All this was as he had expected. What he'd not anticipated was to find Quintus facedown on the grass floor, shaking like a man in a fit.

Juba ran to the old slave, kneeling to roll him over to his side. Only then did he see that Quintus was holding on to the Trident, that he'd only miraculously not managed to fall upon one of its points.

Quintus had whites for eyes, and Juba clutched his shoulders, trying to wake him. The slave just shook, his fingers squeezing so hard into the metal skin of the twin bronze and copper snakes that the bones of his knuckles stood out grotesquely beneath his skin. Finally Juba gripped with his right hand the newly polished ash staff that they'd had fashioned to hold the Trident head. With his left hand he grabbed the prominent arrow-topped central point—near the blacker-than-black stone at the center of the uniquely shaped artifact, but not touching it—and then he twisted and pulled, straining until he'd wrested the Trident out of the old man's hands.

Quintus at once let out a long breath like a sigh, and his body relaxed back into the sun-starved grass. The blades crinkled beneath his weight. His lungs seemed to rise and fall more easily, and his eyes closed as if he was sleeping.

Juba set the Trident aside and then tried to wake his old friend, tugging more gently at his shoulders than he had before.

The slave's eyes fluttered, opened, and then focused. “Juba,” he croaked.

“What happened? What were you doing?”

Quintus was pale, but the look of guilt in his eyes was more pained than anything his exhausted body could communicate. “I'm … I'm sorry. Didn't want to but he … he made me try.”

“What? Who?”

“Him,” Quintus managed to say, peering back behind Juba.

Juba turned his head and saw that he and Quintus were far from alone. Positioned around the inside of the tent, tucked away in the shadowed corners near the flap at its center, were four members of the praetorian guard who'd evidently been standing at attention the whole time, watching the slave convulse. And in front of the flap stood Octavian himself. “Hello, Juba,” he said.

Juba tried to still the hard, angry beating of his heart as he laid Quintus back down. “You must have come down on horse, brother, riding hard.”

Octavian's face was tight. “And you must have taken your time walking. Daydreaming through the markets again?”

Juba agreed as nonchalantly as he could, given the questions surging through his mind. Was Octavian having him followed? For how long? Did he know about Laenas and Alexandria?

“I see you've decided to have the wooden staff replaced,” Octavian said, his eyes moving over to the Trident in the grass.

“I did,” Juba said. There was no sense in denying the plain truth.

“And you chose a craftsman by the river for it?”

Juba had, in fact, found a woodworker down in the traditional markets: an older man, wrinkled but still sturdy, regarded as one of the most able at his craft even among his competitors. He was also a man who, much to their annoyance, refused to divulge any of the secrets of his trade to younger men. When Juba had given him the task of shaping the wooden shaft, he'd encouraged this tendency toward silence by paying him twice what the work should have cost, with another payment on completion. “I thought it safest to find a man where it would be least expected,” Juba said carefully. “In the old market, down among the rabble … none would think to look down there for something like this.”

“I did.”

Juba started to reply, then reconsidered. Beside him, he heard Quintus finally regain movement and push himself to his elbows, away from Octavian.

The Imperator sighed, shook his head as he stepped slowly forward. “Well? May I see it?”

“Of course,” Juba said, pointedly not looking at Quintus as he lifted the Trident from the ground and stood. He carried it carefully in his hands, like an offering, the few steps it took to reach his adopted brother.

“Remarkable work,” Octavian said, though his hands remained at his sides and he leaned back slightly when Juba got close.

“It is,” Juba agreed, trying to make his gratitude clear. “Beautiful work by a master woodworker.”

“A master woodworker,” Octavian repeated. “You paid him well?”

“Very,” Juba said. He tried to meet Octavian's eyes, but he found it difficult to do so. “To keep his silence.”

“Silence is important,” Octavian said.

“I agree,” Juba said quickly. “Absolutely.”

Octavian smiled gratefully, as if they'd come to an understanding. “I'm glad to hear it. I'm glad we can agree on the need for secrecy in this, well, business,” he said.

Juba nodded, tried to show his calm by lowering the Trident he held out in his hands. He wanted to look back at Quintus, but was afraid to do so.

“You've been practicing?” Octavian asked.

“Every moment I can,” Juba said.

“Every moment but those in which you've wandered in the market, offering the Trident to the view of woodworkers.”

The artifact slipped slightly under Juba's fingers, but he caught it again. “All but those, yes. And I never walk long, naturally, I—”

Octavian held up his hand, cutting off his younger stepbrother. “Of course not, Juba. I know you wouldn't toy with the future of Rome like that.”

Juba had to build the courage to look up and meet Octavian's gaze. “I need time away to regain my strength,” he said. “Working the Trident is … taxing.”

BOOK: The Shards of Heaven
7.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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