The victory over the Goths has only brought temporary peace to the Roman Empire. Unrest and intrigues threaten to jeopardize the achievements made. The time travelers from the Saarbrücken not only help to reform Empire but also have to take first steps against the threat posed by the Huns. An expedition is sent to Africa to spread new ideas in the Empire and begin the search for profitable commodities. But the opponents of the new order are not asleep and begin their preparations to restore the old ways - and this with the help of a man who was believed to be dead.
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Dirk van den Boom
Jan Rheinberg was no friend of monuments.
This had certainly to do with the fact that since his childhood every year he had been forced by his father to endure hours in front of the stone images of German glory at different occasions. Victory monuments, statues of heroes, kings, emperors – the old cavalry officer missed no opportunity to teach his son the correct attitude toward remembrance. Rheinberg indeed remembered endless hours spent with garlands, as rain worked through his festive suit and devout calm and respectful attention was expected. He remembered how he took the details of these memorials in and memorized them out of sheer boredom. Each striking lineament, every sword raised, every laurel wreath. Each carefully set plaque. Young maidens holding flowers. Inscriptions that spoke of the heroic death of the fallen, and the victors, and the Empire, and the fatherland. During his career in the Navy, he had have to go through these ordeals again. Here, many hundreds of years earlier in the past, he had to realize that the Roman and the German Empire, despite all other differences, shared a great common interest. The passion for statues, monuments and other forms of stony commemoration bound them through time. At least this curse was one the Captain hadn’t been able to escape through his journey.
And so he stood with arms behind his back in front of the newly unveiled statue that towered on a marble base and listened to the speeches. He kept a respectful and attentive expression, practiced in decades of similar experiences. The statue was a product of perfect craftsmanship, at no point worse or less lifelike and elaborate than those he had visited with his father. It showed the idealized representation of Captain Jonas Becker. He wore his German officer’s uniform whose idiosyncrasies were reproduced by the artist with great love of detail – for that, one of the infantrymen had stood as a model for hours. Becker looked with angular face into the distance, holding a Roman sword in his right, and behind him was the standard of the Empire with the letters SPQR. In a sense, the statue was a perfect symbol of their situation here in Rome, nevertheless Rheinberg didn’t want to like this monument. It reminded him of the fact that the cause for the erection of this larger than life memorial was Jonas Becker’s death, the death of a friend and companion, who Rheinberg missed painfully.
He suppressed a sigh. Many eyes were on him, those of the Germans and the Romans who gathered for the dedication of the monument; a Roman, military Prefect Renna, held the short but pathetic speech. Rheinberg wasn’t listening, he knew the words. The Roman officer had submitted them to him for comment because he wanted to be sure that the right words were said also for the German ears. Rheinberg had been relieved to see that Renna remained brief, which was the right thing in any case. Becker hadn’t been too talkative either.
Rheinberg kept his attitude until Renna had ended. Thus, the official part was over. Of all those present were now expected to indulge for a few moments in the sight of the artwork, make appreciative comments, especially in the presence of the artist, who stood with beaming eyes beside his work, and then to withdraw to a nearby marquee in order to share the displayed delicacies.
In one other thing the Romans differed little from the Germans – the buffet. Rheinberg didn’t escape the hungry glances, especially from the enlisted personnel who also were represented with a delegation. He didn’t reproach them. Once the gathering dissolved, he was just as relieved as those men who made off with subtle restraint, but determination, toward the tent with the food.
Rheinberg had to exchange pleasantries. The first one was Renna, whose arm he took according to Roman tradition.
“A worthy, a moving speech,” he said loudly and fervently. In addition to the military prefect, the bishop of Ravenna, two other priests, and General Arbogast were present, emissaries from the imperial court. The praise was intended more for them than for Renna’s ears, and the Prefect was well aware of this fact.
“Thank you, my friend,” the gaunt Roman said. “He was a great man and deserves every honor.” Rheinberg only smiled and spared a reply. In Thessaloniki, a large tomb was built with superb facilities for the fallen Captain, funded at public expense and with donations of grateful notables of city rescued from the Goths. Rheinberg had decided not to transfer the body here, the “German village”, the newly created and continuously growing district of Ravenna. They needed symbolic places like that tomb, so sad the occasion might be, to promote the integration of the time travelers into the society of Rome of late antiquity. This required the goodwill of Emperor Gratian, which they had earned before Thessaloniki – but that was only one requirement and in no case sufficient. If the citizens of the Greek metropolis recognized the large memorial as theirs and showed some pride in it, they would also learn to accept the strangers with their supernatural technology, and, with luck, word would get around to other parts of the Empire. Word like the fact that here, in the village of the Germans – a de facto independent, small town right on the coast – each inventive, technically gifted and eloquent Roman citizen could make his fortune if he was willing to learn and ready to throw certain prejudices overboard. And another project to prove the usefulness of the newcomers was nearing completion. Rheinberg was eager to get acquainted with the latest developments in this regard, but until then to complete the dance of necessary courtesies.
He stayed especially long with the bishop of Ravenna, an old, half-blind and half-deaf man. It was Rheinberg’s belief that he was an utterly spineless tool of Ambrosius, still one of the greatest critics and opponents of the Germans. The scanty information he received from the court of the Emperor, who currently stayed in Trier, clearly said so. However, it was considered to make Ravenna the capital, as Rheinberg has recently been appointed Magister Militium, Commander-in-Chief of the Roman forces. Rheinberg was, for some time at least, indispensable here, although he knew quite well that an immobile commander of the Roman forces ultimately had to be doomed. It was von Geeren, promoted to Captain, who currently stayed as Rheinberg’s official deputy with the Emperor and who, so his dispatches said, disliked the intrigues of the court heavily.
The military situation was calm. Since defeating the Goths, the rule of young Gratian seemed strengthened. But ultimately they had fought only a respite before Thessaloniki. The real reason for the onset of mass migration – the onrush of the Huns – was still present, and the internal structure of the Empire, especially because of the reforms Rheinberg had initiated, was fragile and impermanent. It was boiling in many corners of the Empire and for very different reasons. And the cooks, who mixed this soup, belonged to Holy Ambrosius, not yet a saint, but a very clever and inventive church-politician who made no secret of his rejection of Rheinberg and the time travelers. The official cause was the suspicion that the Germans use demonic magic powers to perform their miracles, but actually the young captain was pretty sure that the real problem lied in the creed of religious tolerance he used to preach – tolerance between the various sects of the Christian church, the Arians and Trinitarians, and tolerance with respect to the traditional religions of Rome, which were already in a natural decline and ultimately didn’t hope for more than to die in dignity. Senator Symmachus, one of the most vocal advocates of the old Roman beliefs, was one of the supporters of the Germans in the Senate and was therefore an ally. He was one of the few Rheinberg was ready to rely on. Renna also, yes. But then?
Rheinberg was not even sure if he could trust his own crew. The failed mutiny of the former first officer von Klasewitz had left wounds, established a basic mistrust. Rheinberg had the mutineers punished, but not as severly as the law – German and Roman law alike – actually allowed. Instead of condemning them all to death, he had established a kind of “punishment battalion”. With the explicit possibility of parole and return to normal service when the delinquent behaved decently and showed active remorse through zeal and discipline. He couldn’t just execute a few dozen men with their knowledge and experience that he still could use in this ultimately very strange world. He needed them, probably even more than they needed the company of their contemporaries. The example of men like Köhler and Behrens showed that one could achieve something in the Roman Empire on his own, if necessary. Formally, a state of war was in place on the Saarbrücken and purely from a legal viewpoint the crew members had no time limit for their service. But Rheinberg did not give himself to any illusions. He had to allow his men private contact with the population, which ultimately also led to the desire for a different life. He was by no means immune to this yearning. And the example of the young ensign who had disappeared with his bride was a warning.
He had finished greetings and acknowledgments at the end and now could, with the remaining guests, go to the marquee where zealous slaves with trays and pitchers were already running around to provide all visitors with food and wine. Renna had invited and so the assembly was presented with the best delicacies of Roman cuisine. But the cook of the Saarbrücken had had his take as well and filled his own table with food. So there was something for everyone and they were all full of praise. Rheinberg accepted a wineglass and sipped politely from the liquid. He still had a lot to do and wanted no alcohol to distract him. When he looked up, he saw Chief Engineer Dahms nodding, and made a path through the crowd. When he reached Dahms, who held a small glass of brandy in his hands – with cordial greetings and good wishes of the distillery of Behrens and Köhler, who also had a very well thriving tavern in Ravenna –, they separated themselves in order to talk reasonably undisturbed. As most of the guests were already busy to fill their stomachs on the expense of others, this wasn’t a big challenge.
“What’s up?” Rheinberg asked.
The engineer looked extremely happy. “We’re right on schedule, Captain,” he said. “The Valentinian has been completed on time and will go to sea as planned.”
Rheinberg was very pleased with this information. Their efforts to build a steam engine on the basis of the best available alloy – bronze – were successful. Added to this was the introduction of a new ship design, an ocean-going vessel of wood with a steam engine, not unlike trade clipper ships from the period at the beginning of the steam power. Unlike most Roman ships, the Valentinian, their prototype, wouldn’t be creeping along the coasts and fleeing each coarse swell in protective harbors or bays. Equipped with four steam catapults the ship was militarily far superior to every pirate rowers or sail ships. The new pride of the Roman Mediterranean fleet, built in newly constructed dockyards, should be on her maiden voyage in a short time – with a crew that consisted for ninety percent of Roman sailors. They were still not entirely clear about the destination, but yesterday he had a long conversation regarding this topic with the enterprising NCOs Behrens and Köhler, both presenting him with fairly precise ideas. It had only sounded insane at the beginning, but as Rheinberg had slept one night over it, the idea no longer seemed so absurd. He would, of course, discuss it with Joergensen, his new first officer, and the ship’s doctor, Neumann, who were among his closest confidants.
“This is excellent. Your people have done an incredible job,” Rheinberg said.
“They are good men,” Dahms replied proudly. “The Roman shipyard workers and carpenters have absorbed our designs like they were sponges in water. They were excited about the new ideas in regard to sailing ships, but of course, even more about the steam engine. The Valentinian is, like her whole class of ships, both a sailor and as well as a machine-powered cruiser. She is large enough to serve as a fast freighter for important or perishable goods and armed to eradicate pirates. I am confident that with a squadron of these ships the Mediterranean will soon become a very safe place. The basic ship design we also will sell to the trading and shipping companies, who can then rebuild it if they can. After some time, the first will be able to construct steam engines – well, it might actually take a while. As planned, we won’t keep this technology secret. It wouldn’t be possible in the long run anyway.”
Rheinberg nodded. Langenhagen, the new second officer, had advocated to treat the steam power as a state secret and equip only the Roman Navy. There had been an intense discussion. Dahms had remained neutral – his interest was the technical challenge, not politics. Ultimately, however, his arguments had made the difference: Even if you distributed the technology freely, it would take at least two years until resourceful Roman craftsmen would be able to build a prototype without German consulting. Until then, the manufacturers in the “German village” should be able to produce steel in sufficient quantities. So far, however, they hadn’t been able to, and that was the reason for Rheinberg’s next question.
“What about the puddling furnace?”
Dahms made a sour face.
“We have a third trial started but have not yet come to the temperatures necessary for steel production. This is of course only a matter of time. But even then, our experimental furnace won’t able to produce significant amounts. We need many furnaces and a lot more resources.”
“Gratian has assured us of his full support.”
Dahms still looked as if he had bitten into a lemon.
“That’s all well and good, but what does it mean if you look at the current economic situation? Intra-Roman trade is down, there is a full-blown crisis. Your reform proposals, as well intended as they are, will only bear fruit in the midterm, but we really need anything right now to make real progress. Iron ore, oil, rubber … I’ve got a long list.”
“I know your list.”
“Then I don’t need to add anything.”
Dahms wasn’t indignant. Maybe a little bit frustrated. The navy engineer wanted to achieve too much at once, Rheinberg thought. He had to be occasionally slowed down in his enthusiasm, so that no greater frustrations arose.
Rheinberg decided therefore to optimistically examine the issue to cheer the man up a bit. “I had a long talk with Köhler and Behrens. After the men have blessed the Roman Empire with brandy, they forge further plans.”
“I’ve heard that both seek, among other things, a much better beer,” Dahms said with some nostalgia in his voice. The Roman cervisia, like many others of Germans, he found outright distasteful.
“Yes, that too. But that is related to the type of brewing and can ultimately be achieved with local agents. The raw materials are available.”
“People will always drink,” Dahms said. “So what are they cooking up?”
“Cooking says it quite well,” explained Rheinberg. “What many of us miss most – apart from the beer – is another drink, namely …”
“Coffee!” It came like a shot. Dahms’ eyes lit up. “My God, every morning I drink these terrible Roman teas, and every morning I long more for a strong, black coffee!”
“You’re not the only one. And it would also make economic sense to introduce the coffee bean sooner than in our own history: Just as the Romans have obviously been thrilled to accept brandy, coffee should be a big seller. We need our own economic base if we don’t want to be overly dependent on the Roman intrigues at court. Köhler and Behrens are among the specialists – like you – who we need to spread technical innovation.”
“For coffee, I would unhesitatingly give all I have.”
“That won’t be necessary. Köhler has suggested that we use the maiden voyage of the Valentinian not only to demonstrate our new technology, but equally to embark on a small expedition. It should go to Egypt, to Alexandria. There Köhler wants not only to propose the idea of a second shipyard – consider the economic benefits for the poor if we introduce river steamboats – but also to advance to the southeast. He wants to travel with Behrens to Aksum.”
“In our time, the Empire of Ethiopia.”
Understanding loomed on Dahm’s face. “I once saw pictures of our embassy there. A great building.”
“The Kaiser has always attached great importance to show considerable presence at the court of the Emperor of Ethiopia,” Rheinberg said. “But what is much more important is the Ethiopian Highlands are the place where we hope to find the wild coffee bean. If we can persuade the Aksumites to harvest them, planting them to develop the crop, and sell the yield of us, it would be beneficial for everyone involved. One just needs to spread the idea.”
Dahms was completely thrilled; it was abundantly clear for everyone to see. He looked downright dreamy when he imagined himself to be able to enjoy real coffee again.
“So you see, Mr. Chief Engineer, we take care of the important commodities!” Rheinberg concluded grinning.
Dahms nodded eagerly. “The Valentinian will be ready, Captain. Hell, I’ll even immediately rush back to the shipyard and lend a hand! Coffee! We will bless the Roman Empire more than these people can imagine at this time! Proper coffee!”
Rheinberg laughed and shook his head.
But he didn’t fail to give the man credit for his feelings. He was also suffering the herbal teas as well as the abundance of wine. A real breakfast was only possible with coffee, and he would send Köhler and Behrens with pleasure on this trip.
His face darkened as he thought that his own path would soon lead him back to the imperial court.
Sighing, he emptied the wineglass in his hand and waved one of the slaves who stood ready with filled jars.
Köhler and Behrens were to be envied.
Volkert was hoarse from screaming. He coughed, felt the leaden pressure of something cold on his lungs, hoping that he hadn’t caught any inflammation. Wrapped in a thick coat, he trudged through the knee-deep snow and tried to get the most out of his voice. The men assigned to his command did their best and dug a wide swath into the snow, from the fortress to the nearby river. Once the water was free of ice, the Legio II Italica awaited reinforcements. If the riverboats reached here, the men needed free access to the fort, and it was the task of Decurion Thomas Volkert – or Thomasius, as he was known by everyone – to ensure that his men just did that. With big shovels and a lot of muscle, they had already cleared a path from the main gate, a good hundred meters long and ten meters wide. That was quite an achievement for a morning. The critical glances thrown to him from his Centurion standing at the ramparts of the fort, however, spoke a different language. That Volkert had received only fifteen men for his hard work, delinquents who were supposed to be punished for a number of small infractions of discipline, was none of the concern of the young German’s direct superior. As always, miracles were expected from those who obeyed. Volkert was used to that; in the armed forces of the German Reich it had not been fundamentally different.
And having been there, it wasn’t fun at all.
While the cold crawled up his legs, he thought of how far away his time in the German Empire appeared now – although since his fatal decision to desert, for the love of senator’s daughter Julia, only to be pressed into the Roman army, not too much time had passed. He hadn’t seen Julia for months, but the mere fact that his love still deeply blazed in his heart, almost painfully burning, he felt as a confirmation that he had ultimately made the right decision. And if it was not the right one, then at least one anyone with a heart could understand.
Not that the pain of separation had subsided. It had become a silent companion, constantly growing, always admonishing, a source of anxiety as well as a reliable friend. It gave Volkert orientation and stability and helped him to endure the rigors of a service in the Roman army as well as the omnipresent fear that someone will discover his true identity and would hand him over to the captain of the Saarbrücken.
According to the news which had traveled even to Noricum, Rheinberg was now the commander of the Roman forces and began to rebuild the Empire with the blessings of the Emperor. The official confirmation of the edict of toleration had been only the first step. What happened now was a permanent part of the conversation at the evening campfire and Volkert, despite his origin, felt actually not much smarter than his new comrades. He was very careful in these discussions not to prove too much knowledge of the strange foreigners who now were Roman citizens and held highest offices. Desertion lead to death, and Volkert wanted to live. That he was in a very difficult situation seemed to be quite obvious. In some ways, he was very grateful for assignments such as his present, because they helped him to postpone important decisions. Eventually this would have to end.
“This has to go faster!” Decurion Thomasius cried hoarsely, trying to look grimly. The poor legionaries who laboured under his supervision didn’t even try to murmur. Since they were all reassigned to punitive duty, no one would behave unpleasantly in order to get punished worse. In these times, it was very easy to get acquainted with the whip. Although Volkert was no slouch, the idea of having to flog soldiers didn’t fill him with anticipation. Many of these men, forced into the service like him, he had become to know as basically decent fellows, victims of a bad fate. Despite his surprising promotion, emotionally he had more in common with them than with the non-commissioned officer corps of the Legion, which he was now formally a part of. He didn’t want to flog anyone.
But he did also not want to draw the displeasure of Centurion Levantus toward him, an irascible man who was known to distribute his sentences with silent, grim cruelty. Volkert could deal with an angry screamer who got loud seizures once something wasn’t going well. It was much worse to work with someone who was able to issue the deadliest commands with a straight face, as if all this didn’t concern him at all. Levantus was a strange man, enigmatic and always very attentive. The man’s eyes, which never turned away from Volkert and the other men, were always on the lookout for a flaw.
What Volkert most craved at the moment was his pipe. He had left it, like so much else left from his old life, on the Saarbrücken. He didn’t know whether the tobacco’s low stock was now at least as valuable as the coffee on board of the ship. He came more and more to the conviction that tobacco was probably unknown in the Empire. He had seen enough pipes among the legionaries and met a man whose craftsmanship in carving such devices was known and who produced pipes for a few coins. Volkert had tried to place a commission, but had refrained when he had determined what the legionaries actually smoked – mainly herbs such as lettuce or marjoram. Some of the men praised even dried ox dung as particularly delicious. They didn’t puff their pipes, as Volkert was accustomed to, but inhaled the smoke deep into their lungs, usually accompanied by a sip of wine. Volkert had decided not to want to try this, and therefore pretended to have no interest in smoking, which had been generally accepted. If it was true what the young man suspected and the only tobacco could currently be found in unknown America, then it was probably due time to say adieu to this vice. When in doubt, he could still get drunk with the bland wine which was served in the fort.
Stunning perspectives for his life, indeed. Volkert folded his arms around his torso and croaked more encouragement toward his men. It was not yet time for cena, Roman lunch, where warmed and spiced wine was served in the winter to relax the cold bones. As decurion, he had not sufficiently risen in the hierarchy of the troop to excuse himself while his men toiled, therefore the former ensign resorted to warm thoughts and stayed where he was.
If it served to make him look better in the eyes of Centurion Levantus, perhaps it was even worth it. He could use every bit of good will he could take hold of.
Through the open portal strolled Septimus Secundus. He was decurion and took it up, motivated more by esprit de corps but genuine sympathy, to introduce the newcomer to his duties, so the tesserarius – or company sergeant major – wouldn’t have to too much to complain about them, quite apart from Levantus. Secundus was a career soldier, body and soul, but not ambitious enough to ever grow beyond his current rank. He had served for ten years in the legions, four of them in the Legio II Noricum, and no matter what might be said of him he knew his stuff.
And he was a source of news, because his brother was one of the scribes of the commander. If someone wanted to know what the rumors said, he turned to Secundus, who was generally willing to share his wisdom with the world if provided with a jug of wine. Comrades who carried the same burden like him – to be forced to deal with unwilling and incompetent legionaries and to justify their failure upwards – he told everything immediately and without the necessity of bribery. Volkert was surprised that Secundus so casually strolled through the snow, wrapped tightly in his cloak, with a warming leather cap instead of the metal helmet on his head. But then he realized that Levantus had found other things to do than to watch him. The sense of opportunity Secundus had was second to none and spoke volumes about his skills in dealing with superiors. Volkert could still learn much from him.
Secundus joined his comrade, looking around, as if planning to sell something that no one should see, then opened his coat with conspiratorial gesture and took a tightly sealed, small pitcher with a narrow opening out and handed it to Volkert. With greedy hands, the German grabbed. The pitcher was warm, almost hot, and when he untied the small cork, the pleasant smell of spiced wine immediately evaporated toward his nose, which reminded him of the Christmas wine in his elusive homeland. To immediately distract himself from the ascending melancholy, Volkert put the opening at his mouth and drank deeply. The pleasant effect of the warm liquid and the alcohol contained in it was immediately noticeable. With a suspective look at the ramparts of the fort, he swallowed a second time before he put the cork back and returned the flask to Secundus.
“Thanks,” he said sincerely, patting the decurion on the shoulder. “Thank you very much!”
“You’re welcome,” his comrade parried. He ignored the envious glances of simple legionaries just like Volkert did. Rank did in fact has its privileges, however small they might be. “I have news.”
“My brother has noticed that new commands have been received from Treveri. The generals are obviously not very enthusiastic about it, but probably primarily because they simply don’t understand what this is about.”
“The campaign will start?”
Everyone knew that an attack against the Germanic people of the Sarmatians was imminent. Volkert himself was a victim of a recent attack by those warriors, where he had earned both his promotion as well as lost his friend Simodes. The Sarmatians were living in a land Volkert knew from his time as Switzerland. Like all mountain peoples, they were particularly stubborn when it came to the domination of the Romans, and they probably thought to use the current weakness of the Empire after what happened at Adrianople for an uprising. Theodosius, the new commander of the East, had been busy trying to raise another army to resolve this issue, when he was dismissed a few weeks ago and ordered to Trier. Volkert and his men were then returned to their garrison in Noricum and waited for further instructions.
“No, it has nothing to do with the campaign,” Secundus said. “It looks like as they prepare a large-scale Eastern reconnaissance mission. Anyway, all legions lying near Germania were invited to nominate staff for this project.”
Secundus nodded, acutely aware of his own importance. He enjoyed to divulge information and required the sincere admiration of his comrades for them to draw the interesting pieces out of his nose. In addition, as apparently it was cold, it seemed appropriate to take a deep gulp of hot wine before talking.
“It’s probably the Huns. The rumor is that the strange visitors have given the Caesar the idea that all the problems of recent years, up to Adrianople, had a single cause – a people from the Far East, exerting pressure in wild conquest, who will ultimately invade Roman territory.” Secundus leaned forward. “They call it the Great Migration. Did you hear something like that before?”
Volkert had, but he was careful not to show that. Instead, he frowned in surprise and shook his head. “What else did you hear?” he encouraged Secundus, who nodded, quite pleased with himself.
“It will be a strong reconnaissance troop, advancing into the East, and mounted, in order to find out how far the Huns have penetrated and where their path could best be blocked. It seems that the Emperor would prefer to beat them outside the Roman frontiers in order to relieve the pressure. I personally think all that is absurd nonsense. But I’m only a lowly decurion.”
Volkert nodded, but his mind raced. He was unable to escape the logic of this plan. In his own past, the Empire would, even if all the necessary information would’ve been available, not been able to put this kind of campaign on its feet. However, with the reform of the whole apparatus in full swing and with the superior technology that was now introduced piecemeal by the crew of the Saarbrücken, it might succeed. When the Huns could actually be pacified somewhere in Eastern Europe, a key reason for the collapse of Rome would be eliminated. The originally settled nations of that area would see no reason to push westward. Rome would have received an important historical respite. This plan smelled like Captain Rheinberg, so bold and far reaching as it was. There was no other explanation.
“You know more,” Volkert said.
Secundus smiled. It was clear that he needed additional motivation to come out with the rest.
Volkert didn’t hesitate. “You’re broke, my friend!” he said flatly, grinning knowingly. “You lost at dice yesterday, half the legion knows about it.”
The face of his comrade became long. Obviously Volkert had hit the mark. “It was scamming,” Secundus hastened to say, the usual excuse of the luckless. The decurion was a passionate player, and as fast he sometimes managed to make a small fortune from the pay of the less fortunate, as quickly he lost it again because he never knew when it was time to quit. Last night must have been particularly bitter. Decurion Secundus was broke, and at the same time full of ambition to enact his revenge on those responsible for this predicament. Volkert was sure that he would be able to get satisfaction – there were examples for his accomplishments in this area. Everything the decurion needed was some seed money.
“I’ll lend you something,” the German said. “Just a few coins, but enough to enter the game this evening.”
“You’ll get it back tomorrow. With interest!” Secundus assured radiantly.
“I’m not interested in interest,” Volkert parried. “Tell me the rest of the news. You’re still holding something back!”
Secundus smiled and nodded. “This will make you very happy.”
Volkert was fighting for his patience.
“You’re on the list.”
“The list of soldiers the general intends to send to the imperial court. Thou shalt be with the great expedition.”
Volkert looked at Secundus with wide eyes. The horror that threatened to overwhelm him was hard to control. A trip to the East, on a fact-finding mission? It could take months, perhaps even years, and it meant that he had to forego all hope to see Julia in the foreseeable future. In his head, fatalism and resignation alternated with rebellion, even anger. Should he desert again? Then there was definitely no place left where he was safe. Should he ask to be excluded from the selection? On what grounds? All this seemed hopeless.
Secundus wasn’t able to interpret the feelings that were evident in Volkert’s face correctly. “Hey, I gave you more news! You stick to your word, right? You’ll give me a few coins for tonight?”
Volkert nodded and turned without a word. He trudged to his people, took one of the spades lying around and began to participate in the work. This or the wine, he thought, but he had to numb his mind and wanted nothing more than total exhaustion.
Martinus Caius, the son of a rich trader, was disgusting.
There are many ways to describe a person. One can hold forth on his character, describing his appearance, analyze his relationships with other people. The way he moved or spoke as well as important attributes such as his body odor. Preferences, vices and habits might help to illustrate someone in his entirety so that even a third party had a picture of him. Then it depends on the observer how he – after looking at all these aspects related to each other – comes to a final evaluation.
Martinus Caius was corpulent, with pale skin and watery eyes. His hair was a fading reddish-blond although he wasn’t even 30 years old. He moved slowly, almost sluggishly, and his sausage-like fingers resembled whitish maggots of considerable size that peeped under the edges of his robe. Marcus Caius, the father, sent caravans and ships to all corners of the Roman Empire and held considerable shares in two other companies who sailed the Mediterranean with their ships. The biggest problem was that Martinus was the only natural son of his father and thus sole heir and basis of all the hopes and ambitions of his parents. He was spoiled, he was greedy, he drank like a fish, he knew every whore in Ravenna, he splashed his father’s money all over the place, and while he came from a prestigious house, his friends were the dregs of Roman society. In his few sober moments, Martinus’ favorite activity was to avoid any work and to escape the snares of his father who desperately wanted him in his offices to learn his craft and to increase the company’s fortunes. When his escape successfull, he celebrated his spectacular feat with more wine, more disreputable friends, and even more easily available women. He was, at least in the eyes of Julia, the daughter of Senator Marcellus and his wife Lucia, really disgusting.
The worst thing about all this was that she was engaged to him.
While Caius the Elder sat with Senator Marcellus sharing the latest rumors from the imperial court in the courtyard of the senatorial villa, Julia remained with her sister Drusilla and her mother Lucia at a table in the dining room, staring gloomily into her beverage. She found it hard to maintain a friendly and noncommittal mask, because aside from the members of her own family said Martinus also was present, already with wine stains on the festive toga, as well as his mother Claudia. Claudia, the wife of older Caius, was the exact opposite of Lucia. Where Julia’s mother was as wide as high and her massive body radiated with the dignity and arrogance of a queen, Claudia was a withered skeleton that threatened to disappear in the vastness of her clothing. Where Lucia left no doubt that her husband, senator or not, ultimately did what he has been told to do, Claudia remained submissive, very submissive, and was ready to be the lowest slave to her husband’s wishes.
The connection between Martinus and Julia was a family agreement. Lucia was determined to ensure that her daughter never again wasted any thought to a scandalous connection with this strange time traveler who was now hunted as a deserter throughout the Empire – although probably with relatively modest zeal, as she had to admit. The elder Caius hoped that the marriage would lead Martinus to a better way of life, and he was furthermore not lost to consider their own social advancement through connection to a senatorial family, not least the chance that once a purified Martinus would have a chance to be appointed senator. So it seemed like an agreement that would lead to everybody’s satisfaction. And while Martinus didn’t even pretend to be pleased with the connection, Julia’s duty as a daughter of the house was not to show her feelings in public.
This was difficult for her, because the predominant emotion in her aimed to add blood from the idiot’s broken nose to his wine stains.
“You are charming, honorable Lucia,” Martinus looked unsteadily and with watery eyes at Julia’s mother, while his thick lips twisted into a false smile.
Lucia did not seem to recognize the hypocrisy of her future son. Eager to avoid a fate that would leave her daughter without family, money and influence, she returned the smile of the young man with her own falsity, and consequently they both piled layers of lies and deceit on each other until they formed such a dense mass that it could hardly be distinguished from reality. “Dear Martin, you’re too lenient with an old woman,” Lucia said and threw Claudia a grateful look. “A well-bred son you have there, my dear!”
Claudia raised an intimidated look as if she couldn’t quite believe what has just been claimed about the completely misbegotten fruit of her loins. She tried a tentative smile and said nothing, the tense skeletal fingers woven into the folds of her gown.
“What are your plans once we have married?” Lucia wanted to know from Martinus, who already threw longing looks toward the slave with the wine jug, though the young man had already emptied two well-filled goblets. That he, in spite of these amounts, didn’t show any deficits nor seemed to develop a particularly good mood worried Julia.
“I … I shall be soon working in my father’s companies, I assume,” Martinus said a bit clumsily, like he didn’t really believe what he said. “My father has high hopes for the new economic reforms of the emperor. Trade will intensify, he says. I have to be ready, he says.”
“And what do you say, my dear fiance,” Julia rasped her own licorice. “What are your ambitions, Martinus?” She smiled coquettishly. “I’m used to a good family and a certain standard. You know – clothing, jewelry, servants, amusements. Have you ever held games in the Circus Maximus?”
Martinus looked slightly distressed at her, but struggled to maintain his composure. “Not yet,” he managed. “But our wedding should be the occasion to organize them.”
Julia looked at Martinus in mock, but convincing indignation. “We are a Christian household! We disclaim games as a barbaric act and do not wish to be brought into connection with any!”
Her tone left no doubt about her deep aversion, and Martinus blushed. Lucia threw her daughter a sharp look. She was little thrilled that the fiancee was willing to allow her future husband to run into her extended knife.
But Julia decided to even turn the blade inside the wound. “You are also a Christian, Martinus?”
“Sure, otherwise your father wouldn’t have agreed to it,” the young man replied somewhat more confidently and finally managed to bring himself to wave the slave with the wine. He rushed and filled the cup to the brim. As Martinus led the drink rather hurriedly to his mouth, he added to the existing stains some more. Julia smiled sweetly while Lucia apparently could barely control herself from not rolling her eyes. Her husband had his little vices, but his desires were focused on fine confection and to a lesser extent to wine.
“I’m glad,” Julia said, smiling. “I take it to be very strange that you want to hold games. Killing animals and humans for general amusement is not worthy a deed for a Christian man. Maybe the deceitful followers of Arianus would do this. Your family are Arians?”
Julia knew Martinus as only a pro forma Christian and someone who was certainly not discouraged by faith in pursuing numerous amusements. The prohibition of breaking a marriage would, it was said, make him particularly vulnerable. And that Marcellus, and thus his family, were Trinitarians was generally known, though the senator made no fuss about it. Unlike others of his coreligionists, especially Bishop Ambrosius, he wasn’t of the view that a dispute over a detail should throw the whole Church into turmoil. Martinus wasn’t aware of all of this. He turned red and sought desperately for a proper reply. To buy time, he took again to the wine.
Of course, Lucia had to take that last bit of joy away from her daughter. “Don’t care, dear Martinus,” she cooed, throwing Julia a warning look, “it is not so important. The house of Marcellus is known for its tolerance, and instead of the games we would like to host a grand banquet, which is expected to meet all tastes.”
Martinus smiled gratefully and waved an affirmative gesture. Julia was sure that every banquet was acceptable to him, as long as good wine was served in sufficient quantity. She saw the young man emptying his cup with one gulp and then licking his lips. No, she corrected herself, it would be also no problem if the wine was terrible.
To distract herself from her impending fate, Julia let her gaze wander over the small crowd of invited guests. When she saw an old gentleman who despite his advanced age stood very upright and seemed to suffer from the petty gossip of society at least as much as she did, her face lit up again. Lucius Tellius Severus was not just an old general and a respected senator, he was a friend of the family of many years, and Julia had a received friendly welcome when she came to him with her concerns about the forcibly recruited Thomas Volkert. Yes, he even promised to look out for him, and maybe he had a ray of hope for her and was able to lighten the threatening clouds a bit. She apologized to her mother, gave Martinus an evil smile, whose deeper meaning the man obviously didn’t understand, and rose.
Seemingly aimless, she wandered around the room until she came to a halt beside Severus, who, as her luck provided, now rested on a chair. His smile was the first genuine expression of emotion tonight, and already for that Julia was sincerely grateful to the old man.
Therefore, she didn’t mind that Gunter, the dumb Germanic slave, joined them. Since Lucia had appointed him as watchdog of her daughter, he followed her every step. Since he knew virtually no Latin and spoke Greek only in pieces, Lucia could talk easily with the General.
“Well, my young pigeon, you don’t seem to be very happy about the upcoming festivity,” he said to her.
Julia just barely controlled herself not to spit on the floor very unladylike.
But Severus understood how she felt and shook his head indulgently. “The young people don’t always understand the wisdom behind the decisions of the elders,” he said half-seriously, half ironically.
Severus wiggled warningly with his finger. “I didn’t say that the wisdom of the elders is always the right answer to all questions, lovely Julia. And I realize that a marriage with a miserable rascal as Martinus Caius will hardly seem to be wise.” He sighed. “I have big issues with this.”
“It benefits the family,” Julia said stiffly but was pleased to have found a compassionate soul in Severus. “I have to consider only the well-being of my family. My own is less of concern.”
Severus nodded. “The fate of many women. In your case it is particularly serious, since you’ve already lost your heart.”
Julia hesitated, looked around cautiously. No one seemed to care that she was chatting with one of the guests of honor. However, it wasn’t apparent that this was more than just polite conversation. Then she moved on with her question.
“Have you heard anything? Of Thomas? Where has he been abducted to?”
Severus looked blamingly at the young woman. “Although I have my reservations against the practice of forced recruitment – it seems as if the time travelers want to limit it –, we shouldn’t condone that derogatory talk about necessary measures for the protection of the Empire. You too, dear Julia, enjoy the security that these ‘abductees’ guarantee for us all.”
Julia didn’t want to argue with Severus and therefore abstained from an answer. Instead, she gave the old man a sugar-sweet smile to which he responded as desired.
“I have made discreet inquiries. It seems that your Thomas has distinguished himself in battle and has been promoted.”
Julia’s eyes sparkled. Yes, that was her lover! No notorious drunkard and wastrel, but someone who excelled even in a desperate situation. Her heart began to beat and she leaned forward. “Where is he?”
“In Noricum. I don’t know exactly where, but I take the Legio II for the most probable location.”
“Noricum?” Julia frowned and tried to remember the exact geography of the Roman Empire. Then her face lit up. “That’s not far!”
Severus nodded hesitantly. “Reached in a few days with a fast horse; by cart it takes a little longer. My child, what are your plans?”
Julia straightened herself up, as she wore a thoughtful expression.
“Don’t run away again,” the old man warned with genuine concern in his voice. “Once, everyone will accept it as folly of youth, the second time may be regarded as an offence to the family. And this can have serious consequences. Not even I might be able to help.”
Julia patted his hand. “Don’t worry, I know something better. Thank you, thank you so much!”
She leaned forward and blew a kiss on the forehead of the old general, a gesture he enjoyed with closed eyes. Then she turned away, looked at her father and her future husband and drew a deep breath. It was time to put a plan into action.
And this time, her mother would not stand in her way.
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