Betrayal, epidemic, defeat – the list of problems for the crew of the Saarbrücken is endless. Now everything comes down to the question of who will ultimately prevail in this conflict. All powers are in position, have played their cards, and are confident that they will win. In the end, opponents like friends of the time wanderers know that only one person will be left who rightly can call himself Emperor. But until then, it's still a long and very bloody way, which will bring some surprise and cost many lives.
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List of characters
Dirk van den Boom
Volkert had kept it to himself.
No one else had heard of it except him.
As he stepped on solid ground, left the wide gangplank, and stared up at the sky, he shaded his eyes with his right hand. He took a step aside to make way for the column of legionaries who, under the command of Secundus, began to leave the transport. There was a cheerful mood, almost hilarious. Not only had the nature of the Mediterranean been defeated, no, even a pirate fleet had been overcome. There were wonderful stories to tell once they set themselves up in their new camp on African soil.
Volkert brought the most wonderful story of all. And he had to keep it to himself, for although he thought that Rheinberg had to hear of it, he knew no way to communicate to him without endangering his hard-earned camouflage. No matter how he turned it around in his thoughts: Giving all the details he needed to be credible would seal his own fate.
So he kept it to himself and it triggered intense musings.
How did someone capable of the English language get into the pirates’ slave chains? Volkert had had every pretext to interrogate the prisoners, but the result had been completely unsatisfactory. The man had been acquired on a slave market in the east of the Empire, quite legitimately. And where did this slave trader get him from? Nobody cared.
Volkert took a deep breath and sighed. One more thing he had to carry around with him. The loads he managed were not getting smaller. He moved his shoulders, trying to release the tension. As a Tribune, he enjoyed privileges. No one would blame him for taking a day off after the long sea voyage and getting some relaxation in the city’s bathhouses. Except him blaming himself.
The city was the North African Hadrumentum. As far back as Volkert remembered the official nautical charts of the Mediterranean, the modern city of Sousse, in so far as he saw the future as “his” time, would be here, part of the French-dominated colonial territory. It was a very old city, he had learned, older than Carthage, and above all, unlike her more famous sister, she would outlive the millennia and survive until modern times.
Now it was a bustling port, an important transshipment point for the African goods, especially the grain that fed the entire Empire. The fact that Theodosius had chosen this port, in consultation with the local governors, to land his army added even more to the hustle and bustle of this place.
They had been expected. Officers advised Secundus. Volkert considered it necessary to stop looking at the city, although this was his very first visit to African soil. When he joined the men, he was greeted with respect.
“Centurion Rufus Argentius,” one of the men introduced himself. “Sir, the troops must march on, I’m sorry. We are not opening the camp directly at Hadrumentum, as we don’t want to affect trade. We go a little further south and have already started work there. In Hippo Regius, the African prefects unite their troops. Once they’ve finished, we’ll unite all the armies and land back in Italy – or expect Maximus here, if he’s so stupid as to follow us.”
The self-assured arrogance that spoke from the words of the Centurion displeased Volkert. Maximus hadn’t been a fool in the past, why should that have changed now? And if he transferred to Africa, then certainly with sufficient confidence to be able to win this attack. Who knew what von Klasewitz had been doing in the last few weeks and what he would do to make such an invasion feasible?
Volkert suppressed his need to correct the man. He preferred to save his strength for the march.
“Secundus, you organize that!” Volkert ordered his friend, who nodded eagerly. Then he turned back to the Centurion. “There was an incident at sea.”
“Yes, I’ve already noticed that more ships have arrived than expected,” Rufus replied with a smile. “I suppose they’re pirates.”
“Correctly. We have a pinch that I want to hand over to the harbor commander. In addition, I have prisoners whom I also want to get rid of.”
“I will arrange everything.”
“The prisoners are on the grain ship under guard of the Trierarch. He’ll be glad if he can dispose of this load soon.”
“Consider it done.”
Volkert nodded, satisfied. He turned away with a greeting and walked back to the wharf. He wanted to perform one duty himself.
The liberated rudder slaves of the pirates were already led to shore. They looked a lot better now than at the time they had been released from their shackles. Their wounds had been treated as best as possible. From pirate holdings they had been given decent clothes and everyday items. All that remained now was the distribution of the money.
Volkert watched in silence as a man dragged the box of pirate coins ashore and opened it. Volkert had ordered to be generous with the money. The men came from all parts of the Empire and possibly had a long way home. That was the least he could do for them.
In the eyes of the liberated, Volkert saw gratitude and, moreover, a little surprise that the officer actually kept his generous promise – they were free, they had coins in their pockets, and a bundle for the journey. It was a turn of fate that everyone had thought impossible a few weeks ago.
One of the men approached Volkert after the money had been distributed. Nobody had complained about the sum. Everyone had received it with quiet, joyful humility.
“Sir, on behalf of my comrades, I would like to thank you again for your kindness. We will remember your name forever and ask God to protect and reward you in everything. We are all simple men, without influence and wealth. We can not offer more than God’s blessing for you.”
Volkert smiled, perhaps a little embarrassed but pleasantly touched, a feeling he had not felt for a long time.
“I accept your thanks,” he said aloud. Any other word would have been disrespectful. “I send you all my best wishes on your journey and hope that you will see your families again. I gladly accept your good wishes, because the war is not yet over and I can use every good will that is offered to me.”
There was still a bit of murmuring, and hands were shaken, forearm on forearm, as was Roman custom, leaving out the traditional kiss. Then, after a brief moment, while the men stood unsteadily against the quay wall, the group slowly broke up, almost hesitantly, as if some still didn’t want to believe they could really leave.
Volkert remained standing until the last of the liberated had disappeared in the hustle and bustle of the harbor. Some would go home on the quickest way. Others would want to build a new existence here in Africa, uprooted as they were. And others would go to the nearest tavern or bathhouse and spend the money in the warm water of the baths, in the company of a soft bath girl’s breasts, and with a lot of wine and food.
But that was their own decision now. They were free to fail and free to behave themselves and go their own way. Volkert hadn’t been able to do more for them, and in a way he envied these men. They enjoyed, perhaps only for a short time, a freedom that he hadn’t had for a long time.
Volkert’s prison might seem gilded for these poor devils, and they wouldn’t have understood his envy, smiling in disbelief, suspected a joke, if he had spoken accordingly.
So he kept it to himself.
He felt someone approach him. It was Bertius with their common luggage, modest as it was, on his back.
“Yes, Bertius,” Volkert said, nodding at his factotum. “We carry on.”
“You look worried, sir.”
Bertius knew Volkert well, probably too well. He was extraordinarily secretive about certain details, but sometimes had something too maternal in his caring – not least because he wanted to distract him from the fact that he didn’t always take his duties as seriously as he was expected to.
Volkert wasn’t bothered. He had a serious debt to pay off, and this work would take a lifetime. It was certainly creditable to Bertius that he in turn didn’t consistently remind him of this fact.
In fact, he never did.
Volkert sighed and looked at Bertius. “I’m always worried.”
“That’s just too true.” The man raised the one hand he had left and wiggled his index finger in disapproval. “That doesn’t improve your health, sir.”
“That’s why you’re also a manifestation of vitality, my friend.”
If the sentence was ironic, Bertius completely missed the message – or he had decided to ignore it. Instead, he dignifiedly raised one of his supervisor’s large duffel bags signaling that he felt it necessary to leave. “We carry on,” the legionary repeated, without pressing too hard.
Volkert looked back to the sea, as if a longing drove him back there.
Then he nodded to his factotum.
He had many yearnings.
His escape wasn’t on the agenda by now.
Theodosius, Emperor of Rome, looked unhappy.
At any rate, Rheinberg hoped that had nothing to do with shaking hands with the Magister Militium and having to sit down with him in the narrow captain’s cabin of the Saarbrücken.
But at least he guessed where the cause of the grief lay.
Betrayal and intrigue.
The cruiser had arrived in southern Italy just in time to protect the remnants of the army as they boarded ships and also set out to move to Africa. The Emperor himself insisted on residing on the Saarbrücken, if only to openly demonstrate his lasting reliance on the ability of the German commander.
The fact that he retired from his mission to gather a large army in the East and to lead it against Maximus seemed to necessitate this act of emphatic familiarity. The unimportant triviality of the pestilence raging in the east of the Empire and the lack of any army to deploy was not something that kept critical minds from nagging comments. All those who felt a bit pressed against the wall facing the seemingly insurmountable superiority of the time-wanderers now felt a bit better. The comments were subtle and pointed, always in well-spoken words, never offensive, at least not right away. But Rheinberg had learned by now to have an ear for nuances, and once he failed to grasp the deeper meaning of an incidentally thrown sentence, Aurelia was ready to offer him a comprehensive and exhaustive interpretation. The early pregnancy of his companion had a noticeable effect on her mood, and Rheinberg was not sure if that was a good thing. The latent, dangerous aggressiveness of the enchanting Aurelia now came to the fore, complemented by a radical protective instinct. Had she been given the opportunity, she would have marched against Maximus at the head of an army, only to be able to wade properly through the blood of her enemies.
Rheinberg was very happy that Aurelia counted him among her friends.
And he was glad that Theodosius was obviously prepared to continue to rely on him. In any case, the Spaniard was not one of those who indirectly blamed Rheinberg for the disaster in the East. He had received word of the plague from various sources, and one might blame witchcraft and the like for the time-wanderers, but that they would unleash the plague to destroy their own military power – no, the time-wanderers might be demonic sorcerers, but they haven’t been notable for extraordinary stupidity, a fact accepted even by their worst critics.
Fortunately, these were at the court of Maximus. It was exhausting enough to endure the taunts and marginal notes of those who considered themselves loyal followers of Theodosius.
Rheinberg looked at the Emperor. He was visibly aged. Gray strands were discernible at his temples, more than before. His eyes were tired. He didn’t sleep much, Rheinberg had heard, and so he was in the same situation as his general. He drove himself permanently. And the betrayal of Sedacius, of whom Rheinberg had been reported at once, had drained his strength. Less on the physical, but certainly on the emotional level. Who would be the next one willing to put the knife at the Emperor’s throat? Rheinberg knew how the man felt. At least since Malobaudes, at least since Constantinople, he knew it exactly.
That didn’t make it any easier for them both. The saying that shared suffering was only half suffering was utter nonsense. Sometimes it was even more potent.
“We should go on deck,” Rheinberg suggested. “We’re about to leave. It’s a nice sight.”
“He symbolizes movement. But is that also a step forward?”
Theodosius’s remark, like nothing else, revealed his current state of mind. Rheinberg only nodded and led the Emperor into the open. They stood at the bow, respectfully distant from the two sailors who had already started with the ropes. Rheinberg’s gaze wandered over to the anchorage, where seven sailing ships of very different sizes were already heading for Africa, accompanied by the three steamers who would take over their escort. The Saarbrücken itself would pass by with half-strength, still much faster than the other ships, but the Emperor now wanted to get as quickly as possible to Africa to supervise the coordination and composition of his forces.
Rheinberg couldn’t blame him for this restlessness. Miraculeously enough, Maximus’ troops had not hunted them down here to prevent the crossing. The death of Andragathius by the hands of an ambitious young officer, of whom Rheinberg had heard, seemed to have kicked the usurper’s strategy more out of balance than expected. Theodosius had promised to arrange a meeting with the young man. He considered him a rising star among the ranks of his officers, as he had also been instrumental for exposing the conspiracy of Sedacius. He was a lighthouse of loyalty, richly rewarded by his rapid rise in the military hierarchy.
Rheinberg was quite excited.
The hull of the cruiser trembled as the command was given to turn up the idling machines. At first imperceptibly slow, then clearly noticeable, the Saarbrücken broke away from the harbor wall. She drifted a bit sideways into the harbor basin before the helmsman turned gently at the helm and the bow began to itch toward the open sea.
Rheinberg’s gaze fell back to the land he had barely entered. The civilian population had come to attend the spectacle. Still everywhere in Rome, where the Saarbrücken appeared, came big eyes, open mouths and this mixture of enthusiasm, curiosity and fear. It would take quite some time before the sight of the cruiser would be a normal thing, at least until the steamers became more widespread and people could possibly make the mental leap from these ships to Saarbrücken easier than before. In fact, the steamers had not been such a big attraction. In the end, they were too much like the types of ships people were used to – wood, sails, rigging, and that metal tube sticking out of the hull. The true quality was discernible only for the trained eye of the sailor, who suddenly had less to fear of high waves while the headwinds or currents no longer represented any danger.
Recently there had been news that someone in Alexandria had taken seriously to the generously distributed plans of the bronze steam engine. It was heard that one was built as a first prototype. Rheinberg was confident that in eight to ten years at the latest, the proportion of steam-powered ships – even if only as auxiliary propulsion – would be noticeably high on the Mediterranean.
Everything would be much faster, easier and more enjoyable, if not for the annoying triviality of the Civil War, a trifle that had dug these deep wrinkles into the Emperor’s face.
Rheinberg himself didn’t often look into the mirror. He enjoyed the critical scrutiny of Aurelia and the brief moments in which she looked very worried, whenever she believed herself unobserved.
Rheinberg suppressed a sigh. He now knew what it meant if someone aged early.
“I expect you to take command of the troops as soon as we are in Africa,” Theodosius said. Rheinberg frowned. Of course, this was an expectation quite justified – he bore the title of Magister Militium and it was his job to lead the troops. But he knew as well that his experiences about warfare on land were very limited. Even in the decisive battle against Maximus he had to rely heavily on the advice of experienced generals. And they would have won if Gratian hadn’t been murdered.
Theodosius knew that. He had to know.
The Emperor had apparently identified the doubt in Rheinberg’s face. He allowed himself a thin smile. “We’re not allowed to make mistakes, Magister,” the Spaniard explained. “We’ve already lost an emperor and a battle. Our nimbus is scratched, loyalty questioned. Your failure in the East – not your fault, but nevertheless! – didn’t help either.”
Theodosius paused and looked at the water. The sun danced in the waves. It was far too idyllic for such a serious topic.
“There are many – and well-meaning – voices that advise me to appoint another commander. Someone who knows how to lead a Roman legion. The voices have grown louder now that everyone knows that your own soldiers can only use their miracle-weapons sparingly. No one doubts the benefits of the Saarbrücken. Nobody wants to turn the clock back and put away the many innovations that you have brought. In fact, it is proposed to make you the top naval admiral and assign you full authority where you are best versed and have the greatest power. That’s not completely illogical, is it?”
Rheinberg felt an itch in his throat and cleared it. Of course that wasn’t illogical. It would take a big burden off his shoulder. Why did he now feel pain in the face of the discussion? “It’s your decision, Theodosius,” he replied calmly. “I won’t cling to this office.”
The Spaniard nodded as if he had expected this answer. “I won’t do it. I won’t replace you. Honestly, that’s not because I do not know anyone better who could lead the troops. I have good generals. Men who would also listen to your advice but who know how to lead a war on land. But there is a very important reason for leaving you in office.”
“Which one?” Rheinberg asked, knowing it was expected of him.
Theodosius held out a parchment that he had brought out from under his flowing cloak. It was a small scroll, typical of the messages that the Emperor reached by messenger every day from subordinates, spies or friends.
Rheinberg raised both hands. “I believe you, if you just tell me!”
Theodosius smiled knowingly. Rheinberg was able to talk very well in Latin as well as Greek, but reading was much harder. But the smile quickly disappeared from his face. Rheinberg immediately felt a sense of foreboding.
No doubt bad news.
“A message from Ravenna,” Theodosius said measuredly.
“A new development with Maximus?”
“Oh yes. There’s a new Magister Militium following poor old Andragathius.” The Emperor looked at Rheinberg. Was there compassion in his eyes?
“Von Klasewitz.” Theodosius lowered the parchment, said nothing further, just looked at the German.
Rheinberg tried not to stare too much, but he didn’t succeed. Disbelief spread in him. That was … he didn’t have the words. Was he angry? Was he disappointed? Or was he, after all, just amused at how it all happened that fate was constantly busy spitting him in the soup?
The Spaniard gave him a few moments, then spoke again. “It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t miss that,” Rheinberg said. “I’m not happy about it.”
Theodosius nodded thoughtfully. “Now the time-wanderers compete against each other as military leaders of their emperors. This has great symbolic power. And no one knows better how this man thinks, acts and plans. That’s why you stay where you are, Rheinberg. Until the end.”
“The end …” his counterpart echoed thoughtfully.
“Yes, the end,” Theodosius affirmed, giving Rheinberg an intense look. “Make sure, Magister, that I’ll like it.”
Rheinberg lowered his head. Naturally. He had to work, he knew that. The Emperor was expecting a lot from him, especially now.
He didn’t fancy even the beginning anymore.
Freiherr von Klasewitz was extremely satisfied with himself. He stood on the quarterdeck of the Julius Caesar and looked down at the long, massive ship’s body in front of him. The view over the deck of the big transport was obstructed by the two masts and not least by the dark chimney that stretched out of the wooden floor and thus symbolized what this ship was.
It was a small revolution.
Von Klasewitz turned his head to the right. There was the Octavian, the sister ship of the Caesar, just as it was about to be completed. He turned his eyes to the left, and his eyes rested pleasantly on the almost finished construction of the Traian, the third new ship of this class. They were the largest ships Rome had ever built, even larger than the grain freighters that transported the precious food from Africa across the Mediterranean. There were also completely different ships, high-boarded, with a mighty keel and other sails and rigging. The classical square sailors of antiquity could neither cross against the wind nor perform a decent turn, these three leviathans were absolutely capable of doing so.
The steam engines built into the fuselage were far too weak for the big constructions. This was due to the haste with which Klasewitz had had to go about. Day and night work had been done on the transports, as well as on the three bronze machines. They wouldn’t be able to power the ships on their own, but they would help with headwinds, maneuvers, and at least some movement if there was no wind. They made these three giants the most efficient ships of the Roman fleet. They were a great weapon in the hands of the right man.
Of course, he was the right man.
“When can we start shipping the legionaries?”
The voice tore the German out of his thoughts. Tribune Lucius Sempronus belonged to his staff, since the Emperor had already assigned the man, even before his appointment as master of the army, at his side. Von Klasewitz had secretly hoped to be freed from him after his promotion, but the Tribune clung to him like a burdock, always polite, even submissive, never contradictory, a faithfully caring assistant, but just there all the time. Just there. Von Klasewitz turned around, and there was Sempronus. When he opened a door, there was the Tribune, smiling, with a polite bow. He inspected a construction site, a maneuver, a building while Sempronus inspected him. He was his shadow, and he was good at it. The nobleman couldn’t shake him off, because that would mean rejecting the Emperor himself, and that the newly appointed commander did not dare. Yet.
So it was the time to endure the Tribune.
And to answer his questions, because they were the questions of the Emperor.
“Each of the ships can transport a good 800 legionnaires, almost a legion,” von Klasewitz said. “We can start the first transport in a week, maybe two. The ships are almost completed. It will take us about two weeks to reach the agreed landing point in Africa, then the return trip … I think we will have the emperor’s core force in Africa in two months. Until then, Maximus will have requisitioned enough other ships to let the rest of the army transfer in one swing, not to mention the ships the prefects from Africa will send him. We are on schedule. Everything works as agreed.”
At least from their side, he thought silently. Maximus relied on the treacherous prefects of Africa, who acted as if they were supporting Theodosius, but in reality had sided with the usurper. Von Klasewitz had a healthy mistrust of traitors, and he was well-acquainted with the necessary traits. He himself had been one and he wanted to become one again. That’s how he shaped his thoughts.
But none he intended to share with Sempronus.
The Tribune, in any case, listened to his Lord’s words with respectful devotion and was very pleased with everything. How much of it was sincere and how much was pretense von Klasewitz couldn’t guess. In the end, it didn’t matter because the Tribune himself was of no importance. He was the loyal follower of the Emperor, his ear, his voice, nothing more than an extended arm, a puppet. Von Klasewitz had to watch out for him, because he had to watch out for Maximus, but Sempronus himself was … nothing.
Von Klasewitz took a deep breath. Of course, there were many lies. From the outside, the ships looked pretty neat, but in fact it would take some time before they were really operational. In late summer, maybe. But that didn’t hurt. Until then, Theodosius’ troops would feel so safe and spoiled by the African prefects that the sudden change in loyalty and the emergence of Maximus’ army would completely disconcert them. Until the end, they would believe that victory was assured. And then their fate would be sealed. Von Klasewitz looked forward to this moment, especially since it would be the starting point for the sealing of his own fate. With a loyal force at hand, he should be able to overthrow Maximus and make himself the Emperor. Maybe there would be another little civil war after that. But the situation helped him. The East groaned under the plague; with luck the illness would spread to other parts of the Empire. He just had to wait until enough people died that his government would be seen as an anchor of stability, a source of confidence. He didn’t expect serious problems once the deed was done, which would ensure him the purple.
Sempronus, he had decided, would also be one of the victims. A little revenge, actually not worthy of him, unnecessary, but pleasing. As an emperor, he was allowed to treat himself to these little pleasures, the nobleman considered. Why else to hold the power in your hands?
He smiled at Sempronus. “Shall we inspect the ships together?”
The Tribune waved. “If you order so, immediately, of course. But I’m not a specialist, and I do not understand most of it.”
The German smiled wider and patted the officer’s shoulder. “That’s okay.”
Von Klasewitz knew perfectly well that Sempronus had tried to avoid these endless inspections that were done wherever possible. The German himself didn’t do this to control everyone continuously, but rather to chat with all the workers, foremen, and the guards, to listen to their silly worries and hardships, to pretend that he was actually interested in the chatter, and then applying himself regularly to exactly one of the little grievances and to put an end to the problem. Such a thing got around and did well for more loyalty and trust in his person. And it was not a big effort. The mob had problems that matched his mental horizon. Maybe the wine tasted too watery or lunch break had been too short yesterday, and after someone injured himself at work, there was no one around to put on a bandage. This and that. Von Klasewitz then made sure that the next day one or two amphoras of really good wine were delivered or that the break for the workers who so suffered was extended the following day or that a doctor walked the site and treated every ailment with great sympathy.
This made von Klasewitz popular.
And that was a capital he could use well.
Sempronus left the ship, entered the quay, and marched toward the canteen.
Von Klasewitz’s smile changed. It wasn’t false anymore, it was now full of sincere and honest arrogance. This eternal acting certainly took its toll and for a moment to be allowed to be quite the old certainly served his mental health. And the price he paid for this effort was nothing compared to the price he would once receive as a reward.
How well, he thought to himself before he began his inspection, that the world consists mostly of idiots, and I don’t belong to them.
How good, how wonderful.
“At some point you’ll have to decide,” the old man explained as he watched Godegisel brush his fingertips gently over the newly healed scar.
“Decide what, Clodius?” the Goth asked softly.
“Whether you want to be happy about being alive or appalled for carrying the scars of your illness with you.”
Godegisel nodded slowly and looked down at himself. He felt weak and looked like it; the bumps of the plague were clearly visible on his now emaciated-looking body. They were on the way to healing, the pain had subsided. For some days, Godegisel had been eating three meals a day again, carefully prepared by old Clodius, and he was able to wash himself carefully, wear fresh clothes, and occasionally got up to take some shaky steps. It was best when he sat with his benefactor on the bench in front of the hut and let the summer sun shine on his aching limbs.
Clodius used this time to tell him about his life. He also read to him from the scriptures, of which he possessed versions of varying quality, the greatest treasure in this modest dwelling. Godegisel was sure that at no time in his life had he been more intensively and comprehensively engaged in the Lord’s words than in the past few weeks. Clodius took care not to tire his patient. Godegisel slept a lot. And the nightmares subsided, they faded with the receding fever.
When Godegisel looked at the old man, he felt great warmth and affection. When he woke for the first time from delirium, completely disoriented, burning with hot fever, fainting and fainting again, he had seen the smiling face of Clodius, which was covered with fine wrinkles. And then there had been the cool, damp refreshment of a cloth on his forehead, and the gentle voice that calmed him, assuring him that everything was alright and that he was beyond through the worst part soon. He remembered with pleasure the strong taste of the chicken broth Clodius administered to him, the pleasant, invigorating warmth in his stomach, the animation of his spirits, and the almost euphoric joy of being alive.
Old Clodius was like an anchor and constant companion, the embodiment of the feeling of security and concern. The old man had taken care of the infected bumps, endured the unbearable stench, calmed the suffering of the sick if he threatened to despair of his fate. He had been by his side, by day and by night, and Godegisel could only guess what powers the old body had needed to mobilize to accomplish this task.
Godegisel had thanked Clodius many times, and he had accepted it with a refreshingly natural modesty. But the Goth felt every day that he hadn’t yet adequately addressed his debt, and promised Clodius a house and honors and money when he had returned to serving his Roman masters.
Clodius always made a wide movement of both arms and shook his head. “What else do I need? Live your life, young Goth, that’s enough for me.”
Godegisel then accepted these words in apparent humility, yet he could not shake off the thought of being indebted.
And he looked at himself, the slowly healing wounds, with emerging scars that would be visible forever at the joints, in the area of his loins, something that would accompany him for life. A sign that he was blessed, a survivor, tougher than most, not even a blemish.
But, Godegisel kept asking himself touching one of the healing bumps with careful fingers, what would Pina say?
Maybe it would actually be better to banish the woman from his thoughts. He had left her, secretive, and would not return to her as a radiant young man of nobility, as honored hero, in office and dignity, with salary and wealth, but as someone exhausted, aged by the plague, and whether still in honor, that alone would be decided by the outcome of the civil war. And that perspective didn’t look good at the moment. The East couldn’t help Rheinberg and Theodosius. The West was in the hands of Maximus, who cornered his opponents. Help was not to be expected from anywhere.
Godegisel thought he wasn’t doing a very good job at this time.
Clodius seemed to at least partially guess his thoughts. The old man looked at his charge with a mixture of pity and indignation. Godegisel sensed that Clodius would have little sympathy for his whining, and it took a few queries from the old man before he was finally ready to say a few words in regard to his state of mind.
“I’m glad I’m still alive,” Godegisel said finally, answering the old man’s question. “But I’m not sure what kind of life that will be.”
Clodius raised his eyebrows before shaking his head indulgently.
“The weakness that came from the disease damages your soul,” he explained, casting a searching glance at the hearth, where a pot of his excellent chicken soup simmered. “If the body feels bad, we get sad and expect the worst. It isn’t different with you. Once you have fully recovered, you will think differently about it. There must be things in your life that please and make you rejoice. Dedicate your thoughts to these.”
Godegisel hadn’t told the old man much about himself, and his caretaker hadn’t asked. But surely enough Clodius has gathered that the young Goth wasn’t just any traveler who was just unlucky.
He had already considered telling Clodius a lot more about himself. But who would believe such an adventurous story? First captured the Emperor of the East, then killed a time-wanderer, Valens then, whom everyone had considered dead, brought to Britain. There, first part of the conspiracy of Maximus, then the flight to Gaul, then the death of Valens, the journey south, Pina, the admission by Rheinberg, special envoy to the Goths and now a plague sufferer in the hut of an old freed slave – all this within a little over a year.
Such a life wasn’t led by any normal man. He had experienced more than old Clodius during his entire existence, and he was still young. Now he had even survived the plague, something many don’t, and now … by God, what now?
“I hope the Lord has had enough of my adventures,” Godegisel said quietly. “I’ve done my part, I guess.”
Clodius didn’t know what his patient was alluding to, but he probably guessed that he was not just talking about the epidemic. The old man seemed to want to suppress another shaking of his head – he managed to do so halfheartedly – and then he sighed softly. It was hard to give hope and confidence to someone who was tired and suffering from a serious illness.
He got up and looked down at Godegisel.
“I’ll bring you some chicken soup and bake fresh bread. Tomorrow, I go to the market and buy a roast.”
Godegisel shook his head. “No, it costs way too much money, my friend. I can’t pay you back until further notice.”
Clodius made a derogatory gesture. “I have my livelihood, my pension from my former master, I can’t spend all that. Or how else could I have afforded the scrolls, in your opinion? I’ll buy a roast, a decent piece of meat, and we’ll see if we wouldn’t get you a long way along the road to recovery.”
Godegisel didn’t object again. His appetite grew. And he wanted to get stronger. He still had a long way to go and, as life had taken everything from him, there was no alternative to choose from. That wasn’t a prospect that pleased him. But the restlessness, which became stronger with each passing day, was difficult to control. As soon as he was reasonably able to travel, he would set off, and then certainly to Clodius’ displeasure, who enjoyed the young man’s company despite all the work.
“What’s the situation in the surrounding villages?” he asked the old man. “How are they keeping up?”
“I’m pretty surprised,” Clodius replied. “The authorities reacted with expedience and apparently took the right measures. Sick people are quickly isolated. Everywhere people are hunting for rats. Purifying fires are kindled. The movements of travelers are closely controlled. In my time, the plague has spread faster and more extensively. Everyone is not half as panicky as we were then. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but there are actually these moments that I want to be grateful for the Imperial administration. Anyway, the plague seems to stay here in the area. But I heard that the eastern army was badly affected. The men were isolated in time, but they suffer.”
He examined Godegisel scrutinizingly. “We must make sure that you don’t embark on your journey until your bumps have healed well and visibly, my friend. Otherwise, you will be mistaken for an ill person and immediately picked up and isolated. It’s better if you keep your impatience in check and stay with me.” He smiled understandingly at Godegisel. “I’m getting boring, right?”
The Goth shook his head. “Clodius, I love you like my father.”
The old man looked at the patient strangely. Then he turned his head quickly, wiping something from his eyes and concentrated on filling a plate with chicken soup.
Charamadoye felt that it was too early to deal with these issues. He had the cape plucked by his body slave, then sighed softly. Aira withdrew her hands from the royal figure and smiled. She was, like her overlord, not even seventeen, and last night she had served him in a different way than helping him dress. Charamadoye’s gaze rested with pleasure on the slender and tall figure of the slave girl, who had evidently been chosen with great care by his elders. She wasn’t just any girl qualified solely by the external beauty and docility of spirit to serve the King of Nobatia. She was also a daughter of the King of Alwa, and the campaign Charamadoye’s father had waged against the distant neighbor, with the tacit and silent support of Makuria in between, had not only led Charamadoye to ascend the throne, but also brought plenty of booty.
The young ruler of Nobatia looked at himself in the richly decorated Roman mirror in front of which he stood. This item had also been part of the spoils of war. He wasn’t sure if his father’s death on the return trip from Alwa had been worth it, although after last night he was almost ready to believe it.
The young king had to get up early. At night, the Aksumite delegation had arrived. The wars between the three Nubian successor states, which had divided the remains of the once mighty Kush, were one thing. The mighty Aksum was a completely different one. Ezana had once conquered Meroe, the ancient capital of Kush, and thus killed the once mighty empire. But Aksum had renounced a permanent conquest – their territorial interests were more in the Arab world, and there was nothing against three beautiful buffer states between themselves and Rome. That didn’t mean that Aksum wasn’t interested in what was happening in Nobatia, Makuria and Alwa, and Charamadoye’s father’s campaign didn’t necessarily bring joy to Aksum. The elders suspected that the delegation, which had now arrived in the capital of Pharas, graciously indicated to the young king, who had just risen to the throne, that the Emperor had a watchful eye on the Nubian developments, and therefore a rambunctious man like Charamadoye would prefer to think twice before he sets out on new deeds.
The king of Nobatia had absolutely no problem with that notion.
He would use the presence of the Aksumite delegation to announce his engagement with Aira and her release from the status of a slave. This wouldn’t only bring peace but also sent a strong signal to Aksum that the new Lord in Pharas had the intention to conduct his foreign policy through his bed and not his sword. The Aksumites, who were dependent on a complex marriage policy within their Empire, mostly between the rival family clans, would understand that well. And if they gave him his blessing, that would surely cement his position in Nobatia.
That was only right for the King, especially in the face of the confusion that threatened to develop in the Roman Empire north of Nobatia. Aegyptus was close – too close to Charamadoye’s taste – and above all, his spies heard no good.
The King sighed. It was too early for him. And diplomacy was exhausting when one had just spent the whole night exploring a beautiful woman in all subtleties. With fervor. It was tiring a bit. Charamadoye wasn’t looking forward to the duties that lay ahead of him. He wouldn’t be happy again until he had performed all of them.
“Then we don’t want to keep our guests waiting,” he murmured more to himself, but Aira saw this as an invitation to pluck at his robe one last time and then quietly retire.
The King of Nobatia left his personal apartments. At the door, the four men of his personal bodyguard joined him; they would accompany him today. They were all no older than him, sometimes playmates, sons of influential personalities, good friends. In their presence, he felt as sure as a king could feel these days.
Soon they had reached the courtyard of the modest palace. It was built in Roman style. For a true Roman, it might be nothing more than a sprawling mansion of a wealthy knight, but Charamadoye was not so vain as to overestimate his place in history. Young indeed, since his earliest childhood he had been prepared for his function with the best teachers. When Kush collapsed about thirty years before, Charamadoye’s family had been an important aristocratic powerhouse, provincial princes only, but still important. That his father would then become a king himself had been rather unforeseen. But he quickly got into the role and died the death of a ruler.
Charamadoye respected and even loved his father, but had planned to die of old age. In the arms of young girl like Aira, preferably. After all, he was the King.
He should have the power to arrange that.
His equally modest entourage had already assembled, and there, opposite the slightly raised armchair that the King claimed as his throne, stood three Aksumites, well recognizable by their dress as well as their posture. Not rude or even arrogant, but not too submissive either.
One of his advisors joined the King’s side and whispered to him, “The leader of the group is Wazeba, Ouezeba’s brother.”
Charamadoye stiffened involuntarily. Wazeba was a high nobleman and officer of the Aksumite forces, and thus certainly a worthy envoy. But above all, he was the brother of the future Aksumite Emperor, and that was remarkable. It symbolized the importance that the Emperor gave to this embassy, and it also meant that Charamadoye had to be extra careful.
He sat down on his throne chair and looked kindly down at the gathering. Then he raised his hands.
“I want to greet our guests. Come forward!”
The three Aksumites moved forward, keeping a respectful distance and bowing.
“I’m Wazeba,” a particularly tall man said in a deep voice. “I represent Mehadeyis, the Emperor of the great Aksum. I bring the friendly greetings of my overlord, and I look forward to see the King of Nobatia in good health.”
Charamadoye nodded majestically, but as condescendingly as possible. “I greet you, Wazeba. Please, sit by my side.”
Seating next to the throne chair was reserved for the counselors and elders, or particularly important guests of honor. Wazeba and his companions took their seats and were immediately served with refreshments, which they consumed more out of courtesy.
“What message did my fatherly friend, the Emperor of Aksum, give you?”
Wazeba smiled. It seemed to him quite pleasing that the young king came straight to the point. “My Emperor was worried about the death of your honored father and the process of your accession to the throne. He wanted to make sure everything was fine in Nobatia.” He made a sweeping gesture. “I see that my master’s concern was unfounded.”
“Not at all,” Charamadoye said. “It’s always a risk when someone without much experience suddenly succeeds a ruler. Your Emperor is so wise to prepare your brother for this high office. My father didn’t have much time for that and was often busy with … other things.”
Wazeba inclined his head. “My Emperor is not sure if the campaign against Alwa was a wise decision.”
“Ah, I assure you, noble Wazeba, that I’m absolutely convinced that my father’s decision was at least premature.”
The Aksumite nodded interestedly. Charamadoye leaned forward.
“Please tell the Lord of Aksum that I have no intention of continuing my father’s martial activities, at least not offensively. Kush only vanished a few decades ago and many nobles from that time have a deep desire to revive the Empire. I would like to assume that my father also had thoughts in this direction.”
“You do not?”
“Not at all. There are reasons why Kush fell apart. We had lost all inner unity.”
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