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Authors: Michael Livingston

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BOOK: The Shards of Heaven
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Up the hard-packed dirt road from the bridge over the Tiber came the sound of hooves, a punishing gallop of men in fury. Valerius took a deep breath to clear his mind of reasons in order to focus on the simple facts of the task at hand: to get into the villa and end the child's life. With practiced speed he pocketed his blade, fearful of any glint it might give off despite the deep shadows and brush in which he crouched.

The staff emblem rattling above the lead rider showed the markings of Caesar's famed Sixth Legion, and even before they were close enough for the assassin to see the details of the faces of the riders themselves, he knew the man at their center to be Mark Antony: the general was broad-shouldered and handsome in his signet robes, with thick curls of red hair bouncing at every downbeat, and he exuded arrogance and assumptive power with every movement. Even the strong and impassioned way he drove his steed, completely heedless of consequence to the beast, seemed emblematic of the man. If the citizens of Rome knew but one thing about Antony it was that he was full of fire, his eyes never alight on anything but his goal. He'd been Julius Caesar's finest general, perhaps his best friend, and for some reason—Valerius couldn't fathom why—his life had been spared by the conspiratorial senators.

Valerius slowly and methodically stretched some of his tense muscles, grateful for Antony's appearance. He'd counted on an emissary coming to call on the distraught queen of Egypt, but none could be more ideal than Antony. Chaos followed the man like the wake of a passing ship, and his arrival would be sure to send the household into even greater confusion than that which it already labored under, making it far easier for the assassin to complete his work.

*   *   *

Tucked behind the drapes of a momentarily calm foyer, his lungs moving shallow and silent, Valerius listened to the sounds of the villa: servants' feet rushing between rooms, pots and dishes being moved about in the kitchens, the muted sobs of a woman crying, and, very close, the quiet breathing of someone waiting in a nearby doorway. A male someone, by the sound of the breathing. Octavian's contact, he hoped.

Valerius lifted himself to the balls of his feet, floating out from his hiding place. A long, wide swath of torchlight cut across the darkened floor of the foyer, spilling out from the doorway where the man waited, effectively blinding whoever it was to anything moving in the shadows. The assassin glided carefully around the periphery of the room until he stood beside the doorway. Then he took a small rock from his pocket and tossed it lightly out into the open.

The man in the doorway started at the sound of the pebble clattering across the floor, and he took a few hesitant steps into the open. “Hello?” he whispered. His voice cracked. “Is someone—”

The man's quaking voice was frozen by the dull back of the assassin's blade against his throat. Valerius guided him with it, pulling him into the darkness away from the doorway. “Yes,” the assassin breathed in his ear. “Someone is here.”

“I'm … I'm…”

“That's not the code word,” Valerius said, pressing the steel against his skin.

The man's body shook in fright, and his neck spasmed before he finally controlled himself enough to remember the arranged sign. “Tiber,” he croaked. “Tiber.”

Immediately Valerius released and spun Octavian's contact around to get a good look at him. The man was younger than he'd anticipated, perhaps not even twenty. He had the smooth skin of someone unaccustomed to manual labor and the outdoors, and the tone of his complexion showed he was not Italian stock, though it was also more olive than the deeper tan of Cleopatra and her Egyptian court. A Greek, probably. Or a Cretan.

“I'm Didymus,” the man said. “I didn't—”

“Where's the boy?”

“The boy?”

“Little Caesar,” Valerius hissed.

A new fear crossed Didymus' face. “Varro said you wanted Cleo—”

The assassin's voice turned low and dangerous. “Octavian will pay you, yes?”

Didymus nodded, his expression numb.

“Pay you well?”

“Yes,” Didymus managed.

“Then don't waste my time,” Valerius whispered, raising the knife for emphasis. “Where?”

Didymus swallowed carefully, his eyes dark. After a moment he lifted his arm in the direction of the lighted, open doorway. “Through my room, left beyond the curtains. Two rooms down there. Caesarion's is the first.”

“Guards?”

“One inside. Abeden. An Alexandrian.”

“And the Egyptian whore?” Octavian hadn't ordered it, but Valerius was certain there'd be a substantial bonus if both mother and child died tonight. No one in Rome had approved of Caesar's dalliance with the foreign queen.

The fear in Didymus' face was replaced with something more focused and harsh. Something more like the jealousy of a jilted lover. “Her room's beside his. You'll know it for the moaning.”

Valerius nodded, lowered his blade, and padded into Didymus' room. The furnishings were simple enough, but the walls were lined with tables, each stacked tall with scrolls in various states of binding. The traitor was a tutor, he surmised. Probably the boy's. It would explain his hesitation.

The household was still busy at the front of the villa. He could hear Antony bellowing commands, sending the servants scurrying to tend to his horse and to bring wine for his own dust-dried throat. Soon, the assassin imagined, Antony would dispatch one of his legionnaires to fetch Cleopatra.

The assassin doubled his speed as he made his way through the curtained rooms and hallways, keeping to the shadows as much as he could, closing in on the sound of the sobbing woman he now knew for certain to be the queen of Egypt. He encountered no one before he reached Caesarion's door, where he paused to listen for sounds of movement within.

Valerius smiled once more. If the bloodred light of the sunset and the ease of his passage were not surety enough of the gods' blessing on his task, the few noises inside the room would have passed all doubt from his mind. The boy was playing quietly, and from the sound of it Didymus was right about the single guard.

The assassin knocked lightly on the door, then right-palmed his knife. The door cracked, filled with an Egyptian face.

Valerius bowed slightly, kept his voice low and his posture submissive, like a servant's. “The queen requests your presence, Abeden. There's talk of moving the boy.” He stood to one side, so as to let the guard pass into the hallway. “I'm instructed to stand at the door in your absence.”

The guard glanced back at the room, then stepped out into the hall, pulling the door shut behind him. He turned in the direction of Cleopatra's room. As he did so, Valerius came forward at his back, knife moving in a rapid strike up and into the center of his throat, puncturing his voice box. Then, in a smooth and practiced motion, he pulled the blade back and up and out, severing the vital arteries on the right side of the guard's neck even as his free hand gripped the man's weapon arm and used it as a lever to turn his body and send the bright red spray against the wall, out of sight of the boy's doorway. He pinned the man there for a moment as he shook and gurgled, then he stabbed him once more, this time in the left center of his chest.

The guard sagged, only twitching now, and Valerius let him down to the floor quietly before checking his own body for blood. As he expected, only his knife hand had met with the stain, and this he was quick to wipe clean on the dead guard's tunic. Pocketing the weapon, Valerius dragged the man into a slumped position with his back against the wall. From a distance, he'd look like he was sleeping. Valerius would have liked to hide the body completely, but then he'd need to clean up the blood. And, besides, he planned to be finished with his tasks and fleeing through one window or another in a matter of minutes.

Shaking out his own shoulders and straightening his back, the assassin approached the door, knocked once, opened it, and stepped inside.

The room was modest but not small: perhaps fifteen feet square, with only a single wood-shuttered and curtained window above a well-cushioned bed. Caesarion, the boy who might inherit the world, the three-year-old child he had been sent to kill, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a small toy army: chariots, horses, and warriors. The assassin hadn't been sure what to expect, but he was surprised nonetheless to find the little prince dressed in a simple belted Roman tunic and thong sandals, no different from any three-year-old one might find in a market in the city. Even more surprising, though, was how much he resembled his father: he had dark hair cut round and flat against a strong brow, the prominent nose of the Julii, and, when Caesarion looked up, his dead father's piercing dark brown eyes.

“I'm one of Antony's men,” Valerius said, smiling as he did to all children. “We're going to go see your father.” Behind his back the assassin carefully pushed the door's bolt into position, locking the room.

Caesarion nodded, and his voice was quiet and even. “See Father,” the little boy said.

Valerius took a step forward in the room, nodding solemnly. “That's right. I'm sorry for your loss, my lord.”

Little Caesar blinked, then looked down to the wooden figures gathered around him on the floor. His hands moved a Roman chariot forward, knocked over an Egyptian warrior.

Two steps closer. “Your father was a great man. He often won victory over unspeakable odds.”

The boy nodded more strongly this time. He picked up the fallen Egyptian warrior, stood it on its feet and then stared, his face blank, at the pieces before him. “I know,” he said.

Valerius took another step to stand behind Caesarion, his hand moving stealthily to his pocket to retrieve the warm knife. Slowly, deliberately, he bent at the knees, crouching behind the child and gauging his neck. “I am sorry,” he said, and he started to reach forward.

An alarmed shout rang out in the hallway, the hard voice of a man. It froze the assassin's hand as his head turned instinctively toward the locked door and his mind recalled the possible escape routes he'd mapped out beyond the window.

Caesar's son, his own head turning at the shout, saw the assassin's weapon and pushed himself away, scattering toys. He backed into the wall, brandished a wooden play knife in his shaky hands.

Valerius, still crouched with his own knife in hand, was mildly surprised when he looked back to the boy. “You're fast, little one.”

“Don't hurt me,” Caesarion whimpered.

The assassin stood. In another context, with a man before him instead of a boy, he would have smiled. But not here. No smiles, but no lies either. “I have to.”

Caesarion shook his head, swallowed hard. His eyes were dampening, but he didn't cry.

There were answering shouts from within the villa. A sudden crash jolted the locked door, but it held. Valerius found it ironic that Caesar's slaves had kept the house in such good working order that he'd be able to murder the man's son in peace. By the time they breached the door he'd be out the window and on the run, the child dead. Alas that he'd not get the chance at the queen, too. The bonus would have been nice.

“No,” Caesarion stammered. “Please … no.”

Valerius settled his knees a little for balance, eyes taking stock of the child's fake knife. The boy couldn't do him any real harm with it, but the assassin didn't intend to take home even a scratch from this assignment.

There was a crash from Cleopatra's room next door, like the toppling of a great table, and the queen's lament turned to sudden screaming. Not seconds later there was another crash, and Cleopatra's voice grew even louder.

Caesarion's wooden weapon trembled more violently in response to his mother's terrified wails, and Valerius took a single step backward, giving himself room for a blade-dodging feint as he charged. He took a breath. Tensed.

Before Valerius could engage, heavy, running footfalls sounded beyond the shuttered window, and he had chance enough only to turn in the direction of the sounds before the wood slats separating the room from the growing night exploded inward as a massive legionnaire came through, tumbling over the bed and into his side.

The two men flailed to the floor together, grunting as splintered wood fell like rain in the little room. Valerius hit the ground first, but he was able to kick his lower body up in continuation of the legionnaire's momentum, sending the far bigger man hurtling against the barred door. The assassin then rolled quickly, recovering his balance even as the dazed legionnaire scrambled to get his feet under him and began pawing for the gladius at his side.

Valerius came forward at him, knife ready in his grip, but before he could strike he screamed and buckled to one knee as Caesarion jammed his little wooden blade into the soft flesh at the back of his right leg. The assassin swung his arm back at the boy instinctively, catching him above the eye with the butt of his knife, sending him sprawling.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, Valerius turned back around in time to see the big legionnaire draw an arm back and forward, pushing a gladius into his belly, just below his rib cage. Gasping against the cold steel in his gut, the assassin still tried to swing his knife, but the legionnaire held fast to his sword with strong hands, and his thick arms flexed as he twisted it in his grip, scratching the blade into bone. Valerius groaned, strained, then dropped his weapon and sank against the killing stroke, watching, helpless and gasping in broken breaths, as the legionnaire stood, wincing from wounds of his own, and pushed forward until the assassin collapsed to his back.

For a few short gasps, Valerius could see nothing but the ceiling, and then the legionnaire returned into his view. The assassin stared in paralyzed shock as the bigger man painfully lifted a foot and planted it on his chest. Valerius heard a crunch that he strangely could not feel as the foot pressed down and the gladius was pulled free with a jerk of the legionnaire's burly arms. Thick warmth washed over the assassin's chest. Then the legionnaire was gone, limping over him and out of view.

BOOK: The Shards of Heaven
2.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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