The Son of Rome
“You’re an observant one, Solus.”
“Thank you, uncle.”
“I wasn’t finished.”
“A keen eye is a virtue, but only if you know where to look. What to look for. Some things won’t reveal themselves to wandering eyes. And some things reveal themselves only through the observation of others.”
“If you want the truest measure of a man, observe the world when he dies.”
Gaius’ Triumph was a ludicrous thing. It was decadence and ecstasy made manifest, a marching adulation that wound through every street in the great city of Rome. Impossible to ignore, and who would want to? The city entire had turned out for the celebration. Music and cheers were abundant, military buglers and musicians of the citizenry achieving a miraculous synchronicity. As if the Muses themselves played through them.
My great-uncle’s pneuma swept through the streets in a flood, declaring his return to all who had eyes to see and inexplicably revitalizing those of us in his procession. We marched as tirelessly on Rome’s stone roads as we did the marshes and swamps of the western front. Legionnaires specially chosen for their valor in battle threw fistfuls of glimmering silver denarii into the crowds of plebs.
There were more riches, of course. Far more. Gaius had his best tribunes parading them through the streets, precious metals and jewels the size of a man’s clenched fist, enough to fill cart upon cart to their furthest limits.
Triumphs were already events that every Roman, from pleb to patrician, anticipated as much as any holiday. They were city-wide celebrations that lasted long into the night, awarded only to those that shed the light of the Republic on shadowed lands.
A man could bask in the adulation of the great city only if he first added to its borders. Made it greater than it had been before.
Today, Gaius celebrated his fourth Triumph in as many days.
“We know the men we lead,” Gaius said. He sat tall on his personal mount and nodded graciously to the masses. A chariot was traditional, but the general of the western front had opted for his warhorse. “It’s the least that can be expected of us- to know their names, who they are in their hearts. They’re the blade, after all. How can victory be possible if you don’t know what’s sheathed at your hip?”
Walking beside my great-uncle’s horse, at his hip, I considered the question. Rhetorical as always.
“You’ll acquire this skill in time,” he said to me. Not an assurance but a fact, as if he could speak it into being. Maybe he could. “For now, observe what happens when a good man dies.”
Gaius whistled a high and clear note, and the triumphal banners rose.
The vast sounds of the crowd rose higher as depictions of our efforts in the west were proudly presented on eagle-topped standards. Centurions of Gaius’ favored legion carried them with stern faces, but their eyes were aglow.
Four sets of banners to match four days of triumph. On the first day, the battles for the Gallic lands had flown to riotous applause. On the second, the conquest of the savage Britons and their miserable island. Third, the bloodied snow plains of northern Germania.
Gaius paraded a toppled king around the city each day, one for every nation. They were warriors that could alone crush armies of lesser men with little effort, yet they weathered insults from patricians and plebs alike. They were spat upon by men that they could have killed with a cold snort, if not for the shackles around their wrists. And at the end of each day they were beheaded to resounding applause.
Today, though, there were no kings to mock. When the banners rose to depict the fourth and final triumph of the general of the western front, the rising tide was not of adulation.
The people of Rome cried out in anguish.
My wife’s fingers tightened around mine. She pressed herself against my side as citizens and freedmen shouted. Hollered. Wept. An old woman up on her terrace wailed, clawing at her own wrinkled face as if to draw it away from the many banners.
I looked back at the leading banner, most gruesome by far. It was the first time I’d seen it. I knew at once what it was depicting, the news that my great-uncle had received with such fury out in the field.
In shades of cinnabar and vermilion, the Young Wolf tore out his innards while his son and servants fought him.
“The people of Rome know that I alone command the western legions,” Gaius said, as if we were still sitting around the sand table in his command tent. “They know that I am more powerful than they could ever hope to be. My opinion of them matters. My status is a beast they can not afford to provoke. And yet.”
The people of Rome called out against Gaius.
“This is the legacy of a good man,” he said, cool gray eyes sweeping over the citizens of the Republic as they grieved. There were many banners today. “It doesn’t yield. Doesn’t cower. Among heaven and earth, his character is undeniable.”
A memory. My great-uncle, hunched over his sand table. A papyrus missive crushed in his fist.
I grudge you your death, as you would have grudged me your life.
“Why celebrate it at all?” I asked quietly. My wife looked fearfully at me, her grip on my hand crushing. It was madness to question the tyrant of the west.
“The first three days were celebrations,” he said. His eyes were horribly old. “Today is a statement.”
I looked upon a Republic in mourning. Understanding came, and with it dread. The people of Rome cried out in despair for their fallen sons. But they did not rise.
“You can be a good man, nephew,” he offered me. My jaw clenched.
“Or I can lead them.”
“Something’s wrong,” Griffon mused. He strode barefoot through streets littered with pulverized stone and all manner of detritus, one hand propped on the pommel of his stolen blade and the other swaying at his side.
It was an egregious understatement. The outer limits of Olympia were a ruin, homes and roads torn up and scattered to the four winds as if by a furious god. As we ventured further in, closer to that distant mountain with its perpetual storm, the damage slowly diminished. It was more to do with the quality of the architecture than anything else, though. The closer we drew to the heart of Olympia, the better her homes and monuments had been able to weather the apparent disaster.
Yet even as devastated slums gave way to battered residential districts, and then to smooth streets of baked scarlet clay, we hardly saw another soul. There were vagrants, yes. Urchins and slaves as well. But citizens were few and far between, and the few we did see rushed out ahead of us with torches and wrapped bundles in their arms.
“It’s fresh,” Griffon continued, scarlet eyes roving over the shadowed ruins. “But the atmosphere is all wrong. The citizens are in a rush while the mongrels are loitering.”
I flexed my right hand, near the naked blade I’d stolen from a pirate. It was an ugly, ill-wrought weapon, without even a sheath to house it. It was all I had for the moment.
“The free cities don’t hold standing armies,” I said quietly. “They conscript their citizens when they go to war.”
“Not likely.” Griffon frowned, tilting his head as if a different angle would reveal the answer to him. “Olympia is the nexus of the free Mediterranean, a sanctuary state. Any city that decided to wage war with her would be torn apart by seven sets of teeth before they breached her walls.”
Light bloomed in his swaying palm, the rosy fingers of dawn illuminating the path ahead. I tracked a female citizen’s path as she leapt off her terrace, three floors up, and landed adroitly on the red stone road. She was dressed in fine indigo robes and had a wrapped bundle in her arms. She spared us a quick glance before turning and rushing down the street. Her sandals clattered with every step.
“It’s not panic.” The stragglers were in a rush, but not frenzied. “They have somewhere to be.”
“The whole city?” Griffon asked. “At this hour?”
“Maybe the Raging Heaven is conducting its rites,” I suggested.
Griffon scoffed. “Don’t be absurd.”
“Absurd?” I echoed in disbelief. “Your father pulled a star from the sky, and you think a hurricane is absurd?”
“Onto his own cult, yes. He didn’t level the whole fucking city.”
I grunted, acknowledging the point.
We continued on, and the closer we got to the heart of the city the grander its architecture became. Theaters, bathhouses, and all manner of grand residential estates abounded. Signs of calamity abounded, but the buildings themselves had weathered the storm without issue. And still the streets were empty of citizens.
It wasn’t until we saw the torch light that I finally understood. It was a distant glow at first, hardly brighter than the light in Griffon’s palm, but as we drew closer it grew larger and brighter. It became a sea, bobbing waves of torch flame streaming into the city’s central pavilion. Thousands upon thousands of citizens gathered in the agora as the moon peered through the storm clouds wreathing the Raging Heaven’s mountain.
Eerie silence gave way to cries. To shouts. To mournful chants. And I understood.
“This is a funeral,” I said. Griffon’s eyes widened as he made the connection.
My mentor had taught me about death as the Greeks understood it. When a man died his vital essence left him in his final breath. One last gasp, easily missed. This principle held true for cultivators just the same. But the scale differed. Cultivation makes a man more of what he already is. It enhances everything he does, for better or for worse.
Olympia hadn’t been attacked. It had suffered a natural disaster, but not in the traditional sense. The truth was written on every weeping face, and in every wrapped offering. The people of Olympia, cultivators from every corner of the Mediterranean, gathered in the battered agora to pay their respects.
A tyrant had died.