Book: Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth
The boy still slept, in that twilight world where he had rested much of the time since his return, in the broad bed, in the room with the record player and the rock and roll posters and the magazines and the pictures of green earthly fields and horses. He was seventeen. A little bit of a mustache and a touch of beard was on his face, shadow of a manhood he might never reach, in Hell-a down of beard which the sycophants zealously shaved away, as they tended him in these several days and nights; but they did not disturb his rest. Locks of black hair fell on his brow, about his ears; one well-muscled young arm lay across his chest, picked out like marble in the single stripe of light which came in from the door. His father stood looking down on him, and at last, carefully, settled on the bedside.
Brutus did not stir at that shifting of the mattress, and Julius Caesar reached out ever so gently and touched the boy’s face, back of his forefinger tracing a line of bone which he saw in the mirror daily. It was a theft, that touch, stolen from time and Hell-a moment he had never managed to steal from life; and his hand trembled now, which had not trembled at many things on earth-not out of fear: it took more than an assassin to daunt him-but out of the enormity of what he stole from the Devil and from his enemies, and out of the Sense of vulnerability he found in himself. The Devil had a hostage-here, in this bed. And he, Julius, veteran of plots and counterplots through centuries in Hell, possessor of vast power-risked everything in that touch.
“This isn’t about Caesarion at all,” Welch had said, that day in Julius’ office-when Julius’ second son had proven twice the fool and threatened Hell to pay if Julius did not retrieve him quickly from the allies he had chosen.
Welch, the American, was an expensive man-unbuyable in coin. And from that moment and that observation Julius had looked on this recruit with doubt.
“It is,” Julius had assured him, playing out the role, “most especially about Caesarion. My son the fool. My son who runs off to the Dissidents. Who compromises my interests.”
“So make up your own family quarrels,” Welch had said. “Put your own people on it.”
Is that what they want? Is that the name of the game-bring my resources out of hiding? Who are you working for, Americane? It was Mithridates sent me Brutus.
I know that. Sent me my bastard son-my assassin, stripped of memory, Marcus Junius Brutus, thinking he died on the Baiae road, as, of seventeen … because it’s as far as his recollection goes. Mithridates, in the Pentagram, the power who pulls Rameses strings, keeps my murderer out of time, lo, all these centuries, and delivers him to me an innocent. The Dissidents take out Hadrian, the Supreme Commander who was, whatever his failings, Roman-and in comes Rameses and the East. Arrives Brutus, helpless and seventeen, on my doorstep. Exit Caesarion the rebel, from that lecher Tiberius’ den-to join Dissidents we know are a front for the Eastern faction.
And put my own people on it, this American says.
Was it Mithridates sent you last time, Welch, to work your way into my regard like this bastard son of mine? And have I made a fatal mistake?
“Augustus will kill the boy if he finds him,” Julius had said, dour-faced. It was plausible enough. Augustus had indeed done it once and long ago. “Then no matter what strings you think Niccolo can pull, we may lose him forever.”
“So.” The American locked his hands behind him and paced a bit, looked at him with a curious turn of his head. “And you can’t stop that? You got a real houseful here. Another son, what I hear. Besides Augustus. Rumor was true, was it? You. Brutus’ mother.”
Too many questions, Americane. Far too many questions. “Brutus was-is-a seventeen year old boy. Do you understand what that means? We just got him back. We don’t know from where.” But we guess, don’t we? “He doesn’t remember anything. You, of all men, ought to sympathize with that-”
- knowing that Welch himself alleged gaps in his memory. If it were so. If anything regarding this American was Credible, this should be.
“Fine,” Welch had said then, “I’ll take Brutus with me-I need someone Caesarion can relate to, somebody he’ll trust. Another one of your sons ought to do the trick.”
That he had not expected; Julius had been, for once, caught facing the wrong flank. Not information. A challenge and a trap. “He … Brutus doesn’t know Caesarion; they’ve never met here. Anyone but Brutus, Welch. Anything but that.” And that was wrong to have said. Once into it, there was no way out but forward. He foreknew that little look of satisfaction on Welch’s face, foreknew the demand, foreknew that he was compelled then, trapped, to make a play within a play, feigning Caesar feigning grief, which in fact was true, but he made his face hard and shot a calculating look which he well intended Welch to see-If you are Mithridates man; and Mithridates sent Brutus’-
Beyond the play, beneath the double-layered grief and harshness, snake swallowing tail, that drought had come up like a foul bubble out of the dark.
If you ask for Brutus, if you seek him out - Is it not that Mithridates thinks it time to throw the dice? Bring me back Caesarion. And what do you bring back in Brutus?
Trojan horse, my Greek-loving American?
But I dare not call a bluff-not of those that may pull your strings.
No, you will not lose them. You will not fail me. Not fad Mithridates, who will bring Brutus back himself - how could he fail a revenge he’s planned … all these centuries? If Brutus should die there - Mithridates himself would bring him back.
“Yes,” he had said to Welch. And thought: I will have both of them returned.
And you, too, Americane, into my hands. A man who can surprise me is too clever to leave to my enemies.
The boy shifted, a turn of his head against the pillows, a movement of his hand, and an opening of confused eyes. Julius took back his hand as Brutus started upright, eyes wide and his face a mask of terror in the stripe of light from the door. “Ah!” he cried.
Do you know that I know? Julius wondered. It was fate he tempted, sitting here within reach. Or it was has enemies.
“Father?” Brutus said then, a shaken whisper. “Father?” Desperately, the way a frightened boy might ask; the way a guilty boy could not ask, not with that tone of vulnerability.
Then Julius drew a whole breath, and rested his hands on his khaki-clad knees as he sat there on the bedside. Not corrupted, then. Innocent. But he distrusted what was so attractive to believe; and hardened his heart against that frightened face that peered at him out of drugs and the dark. “Who else?”
he asked. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Sorry? What for, boy?”
“I d-d-don’t know.”
“Don’t stammer.” He reached and patted the side of Brutus’ arm, fatherly reproof. “Feeling better, are you?”
“I - “
“Thought it was best to let you sleep.”
Brutus heaved himself further upright in bed, swung his feet for the side and caught himself suddenly against his arms. “Uhhh!”
“Di ‘mortales.” Brutus’ head hung. He shook it and groped after balance, looking up, shadow-faced ghost, the light falling across taut muscle of shoulder and side. “I’m weak.”
“It’s the medicines.”
So the memory was intact. Lethe-water had confused it, dimmed all recent recollection, but it had not uprooted the event itself. Rope-bums on his arms.
A fear of falling. Damned American had parachuted the boy out of a plane, during which Brutus, who had never seen a plane dose-up, much less contemplated jumping out of one, had managed to stay sane. And then the damned American snagged him while he was still shaken and tied him to a tree-when Brutus had thought he had come along to help.
So he had understood then, surely, that his father had turned him over to an enemy.
“I had to do it,” Julius said. And then cruelly, because he was old in Hell, far older than Brutus, in the way Hell’s time ran-and knew how to manipulate: “I knew you could do it. I knew you were man enough.”
A shudder ran through the waxen body. “I fell. I jumped like he told me to-Welch. Be said I had to find my b-brother. He said th-th-”
“Th-that he was your enemy.”
Julius drew in his breath. Truth, from Welch to Brutus? That fell out of the stack, untidy, distressing in implications of miscalculation about the American.
“He’s K-klea s s-son. I know th-that. Is he m-my enemy? Or y-yours? “
Too much bewilderment. Too many changes. There was no chance that it was an act … unless one of Hell’s friends had made a switch, and bedded down in Brutus’ stead.
“Both, maybe,” Julius said.
The face that stared back at him-gods, out of a mirror, so many, many years ago. A little of him. A little of the woman he had loved-in his own callow youth. The boy was terrified. Starkly terrified.
“What are the D-Dissidents?”
Clever lad. Bight to the mechanics of the thing. Not a shallow question: Brutus knew what the Dissidents were; they were the nuisanceful folk who had kidnapped the Supreme Commander, Hadrianus, whom Julius’ own agents kept in hiding; they were Hell’s recent difficulty, and the stated reason for Julius’ treks into the field-which was a lie, but never mind; most of Hell accepted it. Except, perhaps, Brutus, who had seen Scaevola raving about the towers of Ilium.
“Which answer do you want, boy? What they’ve got to do with Caesarion?”
“You know Augustus is my son too. Great-nephew. Adopted.”
“Well, I married Klea. Egyptian law. Never mind that I had a wife in Borne-”
Julius made a face. “It was legal-in Egypt. And null and void in Borne. Smart man, eh? But Klea turned up pregnant. Gave me a son and a tangle … because he was the only damned in-wedlock son I’d gotten. But he was half Ptolemiades and half Julian; half foreign and half Roman; and illegitimate in Borne but heir to Egypt. Klea’s little maneuvering. My soft-headedness. That was Caesarion. I’ll tell you something. When you’re old, and I was old, yes, and that was my last chance at a son-”
“And I was long gone.”
Julius did not let the wincing show. “It was long past that summer in Baiae.
My last chance, I say. I didn’t live to see him grown. I knew-” Knew about the conspiracy, son. that I wouldn’t last the week; I knew Rome couldn’t survive, and Caesarion couldn’t, not a boy made heir to an unwilling Rome. So I kept my Word-adopting my nephew. Gods, how that galled Antonius! “Knew I had so little time. Augustus succeeded me in Rome. But it was Antonius who brought up Caesarion in Alexandria. He married Klea then. And Augustus’ sister in Rome.
Damned mess. Eventually Rome went to war-again. Antonius died in it. So did Caesarion. And Klea.” He rested his hand on the sheet where it covered Brutus’ ankle, gently, ever so gently and matter-of-factly. “Caesarion was a rebel even then. He threatened Rome. I don’t say Augustus was right. It was a hard thing to do. But the whole damned East could have peeled away from Rome. Lives lost. Wars upon wars. In fact it was a soldier killed Caesarion, for Augustus’ sake, because that soldier understood the way it was; did it in the heat of things and then knew that Augustus might kill him, you understand; but he did it partly for Rome and partly because he was Roman and Rome hated Caesarion.
I’m telling you all the truth now. It was an ugly business. Augustus could have executed that soldier and kept his hands clean: but so many died, it was so quiet, you understand. It was just too easy to say nothing at all. And if the rumor got out, well, that was Augustus’ style: no official statement. Just regrets. And Rome, you see, Rome wanted to take it at that, didn’t want the blood on its hands; was glad Caesarion was gone. Was guilty to be glad. So they took the regrets and made up rumors. Maybe Caesarion walked off into the desert. Maybe he was still alive. Who knew? So many did and so many died. Do you understand? Do you understand why Caesarion doesn’t forgive me?”
Brutus only stared, his mouth slightly open.
“And why he hates you?” Julius asked.
Brutus gave his head a little shake, as if any movement was too much. Julius closed his hand down hard on the ankle.
“Politics, son. It’s politics the way it was played in those days. And look now: Klea’s here, under Augustus’ roof. They understand. They’re fond of each other. Share a little wine. Talk about old times.” He shook at Brutus’ leg.
“Perspective, son. Klea’s my wife. She’s Antonius’ wife too. My wife, my adopted son, my old friend. They don’t live the past over and over. I don’t.
Only Caesarion is stuck at seventeen. Never gets older. Never any wiser.
Seventeen is all his understanding, just those years he had and who killed him.”
“Don’t stammer. There’s a lad. Irony, yes.” Marcus Junius Brutus, assassin-thought that he had died falling off a horse, while thinking about a girl in Baiae. Marcus Brutus who had suffered the whispers of bastardy all his young life. It was all he remembered … and none of the later, more tangled truth, nothing of politics, and civil war and a disillusioned, hurting man who had committed patricide. For hate of Caesarion? I never got to ask you. Never could ask you why. Surprised hell out of me, son, seeing you with the assassins. Hurt like hell, too. Damn, where you hit. Did you aim? Or was it a flinch on your part? “You’re shivering, boy.”
“C-Cold.” Brutus drew his foot up, pulled the sheets up to his chin as he sat there in the shaft of light. “I j-jumped out of that plane. W-Welch said I should j-just fall out and c-count.”
“Brave lad. I’m sure I wouldn’t have had it in me. Seriously. Airplanes are bad enough. Jumping out of them-I wouldn’t like that.”
“You s-sent me with him.”
There. The accusation. The hurt. “Do you want the truth?” The lure and the bait. Brutus stared at him with glistening eyes and a mouth clamped tight. And nodded then, shortly, defensively.
“I had no choice,” Julius said. “I trusted Welch. Welch didn’t trust me. I knew he’d get you put. Caesarion was the one at risk. Caesarion-was the one who could lose himself to my enemies. I trusted you. I thought-one of my sons could reach him. I didn’t know that Welch would be a fool. I didn’t know that he’d throw away the chance he had. You could have helped. You might have made a difference. You never got a chance.”
It was a lie, of course. It aimed at a boy’s self-confidence in his father’s sight, at a consuming desire for love. It burned in him. It knotted up the muscles of his shoulders and made him shiver again.
“He’s in our hands. He’s safe. It all worked out. Most of all I’m worried for you. It was a damned mess. I’ll have Welch’s guts for what he did.”
A stare. A small, desperate shake of the head. “He d-d-didn’t hurt me. Don’t.”
“Let me judge that.”
“No.” A second shake of the head, eyes despairing. Brutus’ mouth firmed in a convulsive effort. “I’m all r-right. He didn’t d-do anything.” Through chattering teeth. It was stark terror.
Of what? Of me? Of death and hell? Why-plead for Welch?
“You can get anything out of me,” Julius said softly. “You know that.”
A softening, then, a relaxation of the mouth the eyes, till defenses crumbled and there was only vulnerability. “You won’t, then.”
“I won’t. Are you all right?”
“I’m all r-right….”
Julius opened his arms. It was due. He had calculated it to exactitude, what was needful with the boy, if it was Brutus, if Hell had -not deceived him. He took a chance. And the boy took his, cast himself into that absolving embrace, a chilled, taut body trembling against him till he locked his arms the tighter and felt Brutus steady.
Gods, it felt too good-to have a son, to have one son who loved him, after all eternity. He patted Brutus’ shoulder, stroked his hair, turned his head to lean against Brutus’ head, knowing all the while that he was holding the enemy’s weapon, that even as much truth as he had told was a seed that would grow in Brutus’ mind, and that. even Lethe-water could not hold back the truth forever. There was no weapon he had in this private war but love. To turn the blade barehanded-he had tried that, the day they had killed him. It had not worked then.
At the end, Brutus had died a suicide. But it was Augustus and Antonius who had driven him. It was all they had left him. They were all Julians, even Antonius, in his grandfather’s blood. Augustus, Antonius, Caesarion and Brutus and himself. All Julians, all damned, and Brutus the patricide damned the most of all-whose hell was innocence.
“He’s still in there,” Klea said, taking a careful and worried look around the corner of the upstairs hall, and with rare familiarity Niccolo Machiavelli seized her petite pale hand in his and drew her back again to prudence.
“Caesar will handle it,” Niccolo said softly. “Prego, do not hasten things.
Ills very delicate.”
Kleopatra gazed up at him, piquant face and short blond curls and dark eyes, dio! which could have launched armadas-Which had, in point of fact, launched two, though the little queen had led one of them herself. She was dressed in a black pleated skirt, 1930s mode; in a cream silk blouse; in black heels which did little to bring her up to Niccolo’s lank height. And he, creature of habit, wore scholar’s black, a doublet of fine, even elegant cut, a little accent of white here, of red at the shoulders. He had so recently come from things less elegant and less comfortable than Augustus’ sprawling villa. He so dreaded a mistake or miscue that might send him out again; and he found the chance of that in the lovely Ptolemiades’ distress over her own son, imprisoned below, and over Julius, who lingered tonight with young Brutus.
Julius had said-that he would speak to the boy, And Julius had also said to keep an eye on Klea, which, gratifying task that it was, made Niccolo very nervous. He had run afoul of Julius’ well-known temper in matters not minor at all. And doubled as he was between Julius and Administration, Niccolo Machiavelli felt the heat indeed.
“He never should have let the boy go!” Klea cried softly. “Niccolo, I am going to see my son. Whatever he says, I’m going to talk to him—”
Niecolo caught a pair of shapely, silk-clad shoulders and faced the pharaoh of latter Egypt toward him again … huge eyes, dark with indignation, mouth open to protest this violence. He laid a cautioning finger on his own lips. “Prego, prego, signora, not now. Later.”
“Later, when Julius-!”
“Bellissima signora.” He took firm hold other shoulders and kept his voice very low. “At least, at least wait. I beg you. Do not put me in a position.
Ecco, I will help you, majesty, but be calm, do nothing rash. We are all in sympathy. Believe me.”
It stung, it truly did. Niccolo straightened somewhat with a little gesture at his heart and a lifting of his head. “Madonna, your servant. One who has your interests and Julius’ at heart.”
“One who has his precious hide at heart.”
“One and the same, madonna. Come, come, let us go.” Against her fury he made his voice soothing, his manner quiet and reasoning. “I cannot leave you.”
“What, is it my bed next?”
“Madonna, I should perish of such a favor. In the meantime, I cannot permit, cannot-do you understand? Come. Come, let us go downstairs, let us talk among friends. Please! I assure your majesty-we are all concerned.”
“Because my son is in chains in the basement!”
“An exaggeration. I assure your majesty. Please.”
She spun on a neat French heel and started walking, back the way she had come, determined sway of hips and black pleats, the squared resolution of silk-clad shoulders. The vanishing perspective was enchanting, and not lost on Niccolo Machiavelli, amid a relief in one direction, that she had not made a try at Brutus, and alarm in the other, that those stairs for which the little Ptolemy was ‘headed, led equally well to Caesarion’s makeshift cell in the storerooms.
He hastened, then, waved his hand at a sycophant which had picked up his distress. It wailed and trailed its substance out of his path. Damned creature.
Then: “Find Hatshepsut,” he said on inspiration. “Quickly. Quickly.”
The creature fled. It had a mission. It might find favor. It fairly glowed in the air as it streamed for the floor and through it, under Nicoolo’s hurrying footsteps.
He was only a legionary, dodging in and out the slow movement of supply vans and trucks and jeeps, in the sodium-lit darkness of the East New Hell Armory … a great deal of grumbling of motors, slamming of doors, squealing of brakes as a third-line centurion walked up and down the rows checking off one truck and another. The convoy was headed out for the patrols that kept the hills clear, the villas and New Hell itself free of attack. Some of the Tenth was out there, and the Twelfth … so he had heard. He did not ask. He had not asked for this summons that involved driving his car out to a certain dirt road in the woods near the armory and transferring to the hands of legionaries who dressed him in a khaki uniform and dumped him yonder, from a troop truck, to make his way through this maze with a notebook in hand-a notebook, that badge of men entitled to go crosswise through the chaos of a moving unit, and right up the steps of the armory itself.
Down an unremarkable hall, the ordinary plasterboard and paint of 30th century architecture. He found his door, showed a pass to the rifle-carrying guards who stood there, and walked on with one of them for escort, measured tread of boots on cheap green tiles in a nasty green hallway, but one which had real light fixtures, government issue, and the smell of recent paint in a wing which he had never, in all his .career, visited.
More doors, double, this time; windowless, painted steel, dial gave back on a dim room in which metal guttered all about the walls, bowed, rectangular shields, staffs, bannered and not, staffs that bore golden hands, and circles in various arrangements, all massed at the end of the hall, where fire burned.
And among them, taller standards, winged and gold, sending a chill through the blood, a gathering of Eagles that flung their winged shadows about the room.
About the walk, rectangular shields, legion shields worked not in leather but in gold, hung one after the other in their precedences, the thunderbolt of the Tenth, the Jupiter and Bolts of the Twelfth Fulminata center-most to the Eagles and the standards. A single space was vacant. A set of standards and an Eagle would be with it: Victoria Vietrix, it might be, which was on duty on the southern coast.
Napoleon Bonaparte knew what it was he saw, to which outsiders were not admitted; and the Emperor of France felt his shoulders tighten as the legionary-guide brought his rifle to rest with an echoing rattle of modern weapons. Why am I here? he started to ask; and heard the second set of footsteps clicking from behind those sounds, saw the officer advance down the hall from which they had come-a man he would see in the legions as identical to a dozen others, as Roman, as stem and hawk-nosed and lean as a wolf in winter.
No display of brass, no panache at all. But when that man walked in, the guard braced up stiff; and when that man lifted his hand that guard brought his rifle up and took himself outside, closing the door behind him. At this range Napoleon knew him very well indeed.
“Decius Mus,” the Roman said.
The redoubtable Mouse. Caesar’s personal shadow.
“Napoleon,” Napoleon said, for courtesy’s sake. “Bonaparte. To old times, is it?”
Mouse’s face hardly varied. But he walked further into the room, so that it was the legion shrine which backed him, and the fires that leapt and flared on gold did the same about Mouse’s figure. This was a Roman older than Caesar.
This was the man who had volunteered for Hell, and chose to be here, having sent a good part of an enemy army ahead of him. This was the man-they said-to kill whom was worth a deeper hell than this, and Napoleon thought of this as he looked into that old-young face, among the fires.
“Caesar sent me,” Mouse said. “I speak for him.” It was English the Roman spoke, with an Italian accent.
“I don’t doubt,” Napoleon murmured, and there was the most terrible feeling of a call-to-arms, that summons which he had most zealously avoided. “But I have expressed to your emperor that I am retired, that I remain most ardently retired, m’sieur le souris, and a man who bumps my car in traffic and murmurs assignations and gives me rings with his apologies is not the way I prefer my mail, m’sieur, which you may tell to Julius, with my profound regards. How am I to know who asks me out on a deserted road, how am I to know whose Romans they are who expect me to get out and undress in the dark?”
The least humor touched the hawk-nosed face. “The ring, m’sieur. Julius does not often part with it.”
Napoleon scowled and slid the heavy gold signet from his last finger. Easy done. His ring size was smaller. Mouse supped it on. Figure of Venus intaglio on that ring, Venus Genetrix, patron of clan Julia. God knew he had seen that ring and its impressions through the centuries. And there was no question, no question that he had to come, or why he had come on dlis fool’s venture, alone, on dlis outer edge of town, beyond which was wilderness and worse.
“Retired,” he said.
“There was a set-to in the hills,” Mouse said, “very recently. Che Guevara has taken the Trip.”
“Louis XIV is planning an event. A grand ball, you would say. A very elaborate affair.”
“A damned-” Tedious stuck in his throat. Tedious, looking into the Roman’s implacable face, did not seem the probable word.
“Exactly your consocii. Your associates.”
“I have nothing, nothing, in common with that crowd. I maintain no contacts, none whatsoever-”
“You will receive an invitation. Accept it. You will not be compromised.”
“Not be compromised.”
The Roman walked a pace or two and looked at him again, faceless against the light and the glitter of ancient gold. “There is a delicate situation. Say that a well-placed source is in possession of papers. He wishes to change allegiances. East to West, shall we say?”
“Then, dammit, let him bang my car and pass the damned paper!”
The shadow bent its head. Locked its hands behind it. “M’sieur, I would much prefer it But this is a very well-placed source. This is a very cautious source, with a great deal to lose. He wants to do this very indirectly. A third party to our third party. He has known Julius. He wants to be courted.”
“One name is Tigellinus.”
“Mon dieu! Nero’s pet!” Napoleon flung up his hands. “I refuse. The man is filth, is-!”
“-is doubled. Considerably. He may achieve cabinet rank. He’s presently up for appointment. Do you see? Tigelmms is the key Mithridates is using to Tiberius’ villa; he already has agents in the ministries. The murderer of Romans is courting certain Romans, is establishing ties within Tiberius’ household-”
“I don’t want the names!”
“-and in Louis’ society. Very close to home. But the debacle in the hills has left a certain paper-fallout, I believe in the expression. Certain papers are in the hands of a very disillusioned man. Whose agents will find you there, to pass you a certain original document. Suffice it to say, Tigellinus will not want that to come to light.”
“I don’t want to know these things.”
“Without these things you will be vulnerable. Be assured: Caesar is detaching Attila to your assistance.”
“Dieu en del.” There was a sinking feeling at Napoleon’s stomach. A small lurch of panic.
“The contact will come. You have only to receive the paper and take your leave, all very smooth. You’ll have a string on you all the way. No problems.
You’ll find your drop where your car is now. And you will have done Caesar a great favor.”
Napoleon clenched his fists. But the damned arrogant Roman turned his back and walked away, to stand before the standards, shadow still. As Mouse’s speech went, it had been a major oration. And now Mouse was done. Stood there, facing the Eagles, leaving the emperor of France to find his way from the room.
“I take it you are done with courtesies.”
“Caesar has done you a favor.” Not a twitch. Not an inflection. This servant of Caesar’s had delivered his speech and was out of courtesies. Republican Roman, Caesar had warned him about Mouse. Not tolerant of outsiders. Nor of emperors. “Attila will contact you.”
“Mon dieu, the man has no discretion!”
“More than you would imagine, m’sieur l’empereur. But you do not need to know that part of our operations. I would not advise it.”
Shadow before the fires, broad-shouldered and modem in its outlines, against the shields and the standards. Devotions? Napoleon wondered. But this was a man who had delivered himself to Hell, a willing sacrifice to the darkest of his gods.
Napoleon drew in a sharp and furious breath, and turned and strode out; but he was glad to be back in the light, back in modem surroundings, more akin to his age than” what lay behind those doors. He rubbed his finger from which something only moderately ancient had parted. Something which belonged to a man he had thought he knew. He had thought all these years that he had known.
But the smell of fire and antiquity stayed with him, out the doors and into the keen night air.
“There, there,” Hatshepsut said, leaning across the glass and wire table to pat Klea’s hand. The interception, for which Niccolo was profoundly grateful, had been swift and sure, and the distraught latter-age pharaoh sat with a glass of excellent Piesporter before her, the stem in one listless hand, the strong, darker hand of Hatshepsut holding the fingers of the other. Sargon had come. The short, stocky Akkadian had a beer in hand, his broad face all frown: an ancient of the ancients, bare-chested, kilted and with a dagger at his belt, while Hatshepsut of Egypt wore a silver jumpsuit, most distractingly transparent here and there in shifting patterns as the light hit it. Gold and brass and silver adorned her wrist and circleted her black, bobbed hair, uraeus-like, but the serpent wound its tail right round beneath that coiffure and into her ear-not engaged, now, Niccolo thought: mere decoration. But one never knew.
“Don’t give me advice,” Klea said. “I know, I know all Julius’ reasons. Does it mean that he’s right? Because Julius wants it, is it always right?”
“Listen to me, kit.”
“Don’t take that tone with met” Klea snatched her hand back, and the wine sloshed perilously in the glass. Her eyes, suffused with tears, turned to Sargon, turned to Niccolo. “You said you’d help. Who’s on watch down there?”
“Regulus’ guard. Not bribable, signora. But if you want me to reconnoiter I will. I will try to carry a message. Understand-” Niccolo cleared his throat.
“Caesar has me under surveillance. This will not be without personal hazard.
But if you will write this out-if you can be clever about it-I believe I can persuade Caesar himself to permit it.”
“Damn you, you have an opinion of yourself.”
“Tssss,” said Sargon. “Niccolo is not the boy’s mother. He has far more chance of reasoning with Julius.”
Kleopatra took up the wine glass and took a healthy slug of it. Moisture threatened her makeup. “Paper,” she said. “Pen.” There was a cluttering in the air, a rushing here and there among the insubstantial servants. Hands materialized to dab at a little spilled wine, to fill the glass again, but Niccolo swatted at the latter “Vatene, let the bottle alone.” He topped off the glass himself, spilling not a drop, while the requested paper and pen materialized and flurried across the room to arrange themselves in front of the little Ptolemy.
Kleopatra seized up the pen and set it to the paper, lifted it without a mark and bit anxiously at the cap as her brow furrowed in thought.
“A sentiment,” Niccolo said, “that will be easiest to get through. An expression of concern. Your mother is here. I can persuade Julius that that has value.”
“Of course he knows I’m here! That’s the problem, dammit!” Klea lifted the glass and drank. Her hand shook and spilled a straw-colored drop on the paper.
“Damn!” A fierce brush then at the moisture.
“Maternal tears,” Niccolo murmured. “Very effective.”
Kleopatra glared at him, then set pen to paper, hesitated, wrote, and hesitated again, wiping her cheek with a pale hand. The hand when she set it back to paper, trembled violently, her frail shoulders hunched, and her head lifted with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed stare at Niccolo.
“Oh, damn you, damn you-”
“Don’t just sit there,” Hatshepsut said, thrusting back her chair, a scrape of metal on terrazzo. She took Klea by the shoulders, and Sargon was hardly slower, taking die pen from Klea’s unresisting fingers, supporting her drooping head.
“A fine help you are,” Hatshepsut snapped at Niccolo.
“They always blame me,” Niccolo said in genuine offense. “Why do they always look at me?”
It was a narrow hallway, down among the storerooms. In fact the room had seen such use before, was a prison with all the plumbing, inescapable, for Caesarion had tried the door, probed the windowless walls, had examined the cot for materials for weapons and paced and paced till he knew it was useless and until the anxious sycophants that came and went through the walls of the place began to crowd upon him with cluttering admonitions to be still, to give in, a hundred whispering voices, touching hands, contacts which brushed against him until he flung his arms about and yelled at them for silence.
It only diminished the volume of it. The voices maintained a continual susurrus, give up, give in, hush, you’ll only harm yourself … till Caesarion tucked himself up in a corner of his cot against the wall and held his hands over his ears, breathing in great gasps. Still the touches came at his body.
He flailed at them and screamed aloud, great inarticulate screams of outrage.
Then, quietly, huddled amid the blankets in a fetal knot: Mother. But that was only in his mind, because he had had his tutelage in the courts of Egypt, and the hall of mad Tiberius on the lake, where sycophants were ordinary and betrayal was matter of course; and where only great fools opened up their hearts in a matter of sentiment. There was no one, finally. His half-sister Selene and his half-brothers Alexander and Ptolemaios, Antonius’ Eastern brood, had made their accommodations with their destiny-Selene and Alexander Helios at Assurbanipal’s court, Ptolemaios at Tiberius’ court, lost in his library and his pretensions-oh, and there were the Romans: half-sister Julia, who was lost, he had never met; Antonius’ daughter Antonia and her mother Octavia were Augustus’ kin, and lived in retirement, in decent shame, it might be. His nymphomaniac remote cousin Julia was in and out of Tiberius’ court, off lately with her darling daughter Agrippina, in Tiberius’ disfavor (in this case tasteful) of Caligula and all his hangers-on-Zeus and Basteti it was a household. But he would rather the devils he knew than face the ones here, in this house, his father, and his two damned brothers, the one who had murdered him and the one who had murdered his father.
He clenched his hands against his eyes and gritted his teeth and tried not to hear the voices counseling surrender. He hid his face in the blankets and turned over finally, scanning the ceiling for convenient places for a rope made of bedding-There were none. And there were the sycophants, who would bring alarm, who would-He relaxed, sprawled wide on the bed, staring and thinking of that, that there was one way out and past the guards.
What are you doing? the voices wondered as he rolled out of bed and applied his teeth to start a tear in the sheet. He grinned at them, tucked up barefoot as they had left him-barefoot and beltless and without his jacket, just a tee shirt and pair of jeans, well-searched. He ripped another strip and began to tear a third.
Sycophants were not an intelligent breed, but they smelled disaster. They began to tug at the sheet. Voices reached a whispering crescendo as they tore at the strips in his hands, pulled with less success at him, and sycophants by the hundreds began Swirling about and through the walls-Help, help! they cried; and Not our fault!
It took about a quarter of a minute to have a key turning in the lock and that steel door opening; and Ptolemy XV Caesarion launched himself with a drive of his heels, knocked a startled legionary into the door frame, and used karate on a second as he barreled toward the last guard who, he was betting, dared not shoot him.
“Halt!” the man yelled, and swung a rifle butt at him, but Caesarion Sucked his gut out of the way and slid past, pelting for the door at the end.
Which was locked.
“Oh, shit!” Caesarion moaned, and turned hack to face three irritated and oversized legionaries in a hall with one exit only.
One legionary crooked his finger at him.
Then: No, no, no, a lone sycophant wailed, materializing between. Caesar wants! Caesar wants!
The magic word. The legionaries glared and Caesarion, feeling his knees weak, slumped back against the door. “It was stupid,” Julius -said. “I don’t say it wasn’t a good try.”
“You want to take the cuffs off-father.”
Sullen look from under too-long black hair. Cheekbones and coloring his; the mouth Klea’s, full and giving Caesarion a girlish handsomeness. Gods knew what Tiberius’ house had taught the boy. Not that swagger, not that dark glare from under the brows; that did not go well with courtiers. Julius watched his youngest son walk over and drop himself, hands chained behind him, into a slouch in a fragile chair, curl the toes of his bare feet under him like a small boy and stare at him with the surliness of a defeated general.
“No,” Julius answered, regarding the chains, “I don’t, particularly.”
“I’m a Roman citizen.”
“Fine. That entitles you to one appeal and a beheading. Venus cloacina, quoadmodum insaniam petisti? Nonne Antonitis te meltores instruxit?”
“Sure, he taught me a lot of things. Taught me everything an old sot could.
Julius stopped his hand, not before Caesarion flinched and shut his eyes.
Damn, - that’s what he’s after, that’s what he wants, that’s what he believes in. He turned it into a gentler gesture, patted Caesarion on the shoulder.
Caesarion jerked the shoulder aside, and glared through a fall of black hair.
Klea’s mouth, set in fury.
“Look.” Julius put a few paces between them, sat down on the desk edge. “You could have come here any time. Nothing ever stopped you.”
“Enough with the Latin. It’s not my language.”
“You’re a spoiled brat. Damn, you’re spoiled.”
“Sure. Coddled half to death.”
“You’re damned lazy! You don’t think! How far in Hell did you think you were going to get till you found a door?”
Shift feet and hit him with a specific off the flank. Caesarion’s mouth, open to shout, shut while he regrouped.
“How far in Hell,” Julius threw after that, “did you think you were going to get with the losers you were running around the hills with? Peace and justice?
Overthrow the Administration? I know. It’s Satan’s place you’re after.”
“I’m looking at him.”
“I have looked at him, which is a damn sight more than my fool youngest son can Say. I’ve worked in the Pentagram, which is a damn sight more experience than you have, son, and if you think that was an army you were with, if you think that was the grand army going to liberate Hell and take on Paradise, you are a damned short-sighted fool! Look at yourself!”
“You killed them.” The chin, firm till now, quivered. “Men, women, kids, you blew diem all away. No, they didn’t have a chance. No more than me.”
“Than I, dammit, you grew up illiterate to boot.”
“Split grammars with me. Is that all it means?”
“Means. My gods, means. We’re at that age, are we? The meaning of life. Look at Curtius, he died young, but he changes, for godssakes! Man looks eighteen and thinks like three thousand. Put him in the field, you know he’ll do his job, he’ll think it through. Damn, you’re a thundering disappointment.”
“Then fuck you.”
“What did you say?”
“Fuck-” This time Julius came off the desk and the hand did not stop. It cracked, ring and all, backhand across Caesarion’s Cheekbone; and the chair rocked. Caesarion’s head went over, his body did, and it was a moment before he lifted his head, with a welt started white and red, and the mark of the signet a split in the skin. His brain was rattled. It could not but be. And the front was gone. The bluff was called and the boy did not want to be here now, in this situation, facing more of the same with his wits addled.
“Boy,” Julius said, pulling Caesarion’s chin up. “You don’t insult a man from that position. That’s real stupid. That’s what I’m talking about. You don’t expect real consequences, you don’t live in a real world, you go and do things you’re bright enough to know won’t work, but you’re not living, you’re writing little plays that don’t come out that way in real life, son, and they get people killed, the same way Che Guevara got his people killed, the same way lousy tacticians all over Hell get their followers sent back to the Undertaker like cordwood, and the same way they’ll always find sheep to bleat after their causes and pigs to swallow the swill they put out. You want to say that again, son?”
Caesarion’s face was set in fury, red except for the white mark on his cheek; the eyes ran tears and his whole body quivered. But very judiciously he tipped his chin up in the old Med no.
“That’s a hell of a lot better,” Julius said. “Hell of a lot. I’m relieved. I thought I’d sired a fool.”
“You’ll find not. Sir.”
Hate. Outright hate. But much better control. “That’s fine,” Julius said.
“Next time you break for a door, I hope to hell you counted ‘em on the way in.”
Caesarion’s eyes flickered. It was genuine embarrassment.
“Damn,” Julius said, “there’s so much you could learn.”
“I’m not your son! I never had a chance to be. I never knew you. And I’m not Roman.”
“Doesn’t matter. Sorry about getting assassinated. I didn’t plan that, you know.
“Then you made a mistake, didn’t you?”
“Son, I do occasionally make them. I’m generally good at fixing them.”
“Your mother wrote you a note. I didn’t want her down there.” Julius picked up the wine-stained paper. Held it out as if he had forgotten about the cuffs, then fished the key out of his pocket. “Here, well. Let’s be rid of those.”
Caesarion turned in his chair, offered his hands meekly enough, rubbed at his shoulders when he was free and then took the offered paper.
Your mother is here, Klea had written. I love you.
Caesarion’s hand trembled. He wadded up the paper and clenched it in his fist.
“Touching. Where is she?”
“You’ll see her when you manage that mouth of yours. That may take some time.”
“I’m not staying here.”
Julius shook his head wearily. “Son, if you’re going to escape, don’t announce it.”
“Damn you!” Caesarion came out of the chair.
Julius blocked the blow left-handed. His right sent Caesarion back into the chair and the chair screeching back against the wall.
“You’re no better with your hands free,” Julius said.
Caesarion put his hand up to his jaw and looked toward nothing at all.
“Going to be a fool all your life?” Julius asked him. “My gods, boy, you’ve got a brain. Are we playing games, or are you here, in my study, with my guards out there, and the damned Dissident army funded and run by the Pentagram-”
Dark eyes came up to his, wide and angry.
“Run by the Pentagram,” Julius said. “Officers installed; Paid for. Guevara’s betrayed. It’s a damned front for a Pentagram split, son, your great revolutionary leader is either in their pay or he isn’t, and if he isn’t, he’s been had. If he is, he’s had you. Which will you bet?”
“It’s a lie.”
“It’s a lie. Of course it’s a lie. Guevara’s brilliant. There aren’t any mercs coming into the cause. Just all purity of purpose. Di immortales, boy, Guevara’s taken the Trip so often he just waits for the next. comes out like a puppet and staggers through the motions and damned lunatics follow him. You think the Pentagram couldn’t crush that headless snake? It’s damned useful having it thrash about, lets them maneuver where they want, crush their real enemies-”
Caesarion’s eyes were still wide. But the anger began to lack conviction.
“Mithridates is running it, son. Your precious Dissidents didn’t capture Hadrianus, the fool was set up by his own staff, was thrown into their hands.
You’re playing Mithridates’ game. Never mind Rameses. He doesn’t know what goes on. I pulled you in here because I didn’t want you into Reassignments.
Die out there and gods know where you’ll end up. Or in whose hands.
Mithridates’, for one. With your mind laundered. Is your English up to that?
Do you follow me?”
“Do you follow me?”
“Not that far.” Caesarion rubbed his jaw and shook his head. “Wasn’t it not to be a fool you were teaching me?”
“Hell, you still haven’t got it.”
“You’ve got a mouth your-” Caesarion started off hot; and with a nervous flicker of his eyes upward, swallowed it, frozen like a bird before a snake.
“Right.” Julius folded his arms and contemplated his youngest.
“Tiberius failed,” Caesarion sneered. “He tried to break me too.”
“There you go again. For godssakes I’ve got men could peel you like an onion.
Let’s don’t lay bets. There’s nothing you’ve got that I’m after. It’s yourself I wanted back. For your mother’s sake. For mine. Dammit, I’ve been your route.
I hoped time would cure it. But this last I can’t tolerate. Attach yourself to a ragtag like that, a fool like Guevara-you’re too damn smart to believe that crap they hand out. It’s my name you’re after. To make me any damn trouble you can, and you were so damn smug you walked right into a trap two thousand years in the making.”
“What are you talking about?”
“One foot in Roman territory, one in the East-oh, they do want you. Freedom isn’t what you’re bargaining for. Look at it. You wonder what you’ll be worth to them-if ever you get out of line. Where’s your independence then?”
Caesarion thrust himself to his bare feet. Tee shirt and jeans, like his other son, but darker. And the flush still showed on the left side of his face. “So what place have I got?”
“That’s negotiable.” It was as much as could be gotten. “Depends on how convinced I am. But that’s your job.” Julius walked to the door, shot the inner bolt back and opened the latch. Two legionaries waited outside. “Mind your manners.”
“Back to that place.”
“Son, we just haven’t got a lot of secure accommodations here.”
Caesarion straightened his shoulders. “Sir,” he said. And walked out, quietly between his guards.
Stopped then, dead in his tracks, at sight of the toga-clad, freckled man who stood across the hall. One half heartbeat.
Then Caesarion ran, broke from his guards and pelted down the hall as the legionaries reached for guns.
“Damn!” Julius hit the first-drawn pistol aside and blocked the second, shoving the legionaries into motion. “No! Catch him!” As Augustus himself hesitated and fleet bare feet headed around a comer. The legionaries ran after the boy; Julius sprinted for the stairs to head the boy off from the downstairs main hall.
Down and down, his boots less sure on the marble than bare feet would be. Down into the main hall and around the turning as he saw Caesarion coming down the hall between him and the two legionaries in hot pursuit.
A door opened midway down the hall. Dante Alighieri stared in profoundest shock as he stepped out carrying a sandwich and a glass of milk.
“For the gods’ sake-” Julius yelled, but Caesarion bowled the Italian aside on his way out the offered door to the kitchens, and Julius hit the poet from the other side, rattling the French doors and leaving a second crash of glassware-legion oaths then, as the GIs followed, on a crescendo of Italian imprecation. But with the lead he had gained Caesarion sped ahead, down another, darkened corridor toward the dining rooms, toward the turn that led round again by a row of windows. He snatched up a bronze bust off a bureau one-handed and sent it through the window in a shower of glass and wood, himself leaping after it without ever, the thought came to Julius in a fit of frustrated rage, even knowing what damned floor he was on.
Julius got that far, leapt up with his foot on the ledge to try the eight foot drop to the flower garden, before the legionaries grabbed his arms and pulled him back, risking that jump themselves, one and the other landing in the bushes and staggering across dark bark chips where glass shone.
There was one thing in which a fit. seventeen year old, even barefoot, had the advantage of a pack of thirty year olds. Caesarion was on his feet in the half-light of Hell’s night, running like a deer across the lawn and toward the hedges-gods knew how cut, or bleeding. But the legionaires with their gear and their guns could not catch him. “Track him!” Julius yelled into the dark; and at the flicker of a sycophant that came to the broken glass: “APB,” he said.
Horatius, Horatius, Horatius-the creature whispered, and went for the security chief.
Damned little chance, he thought, seething. And heard the agitated apologies of the poet down the hallways, protestations of innocence … Dante had heard the commotion, had come out in all good faith to see what the trouble was …
Augustus’ voice then, no little agitated on its own. Julius looked, hearing footsteps, and found Augustus coming toward him in haste down the hall.
“I’m sorry,” Augustus said. “Pro di, I’m sorry.”
Julius stared at his adopted son. The Emperor, who after effecting Antonius’ and Klea’s earthly deaths, had lured Caesarion and his tutor to Alexandria and into his keeping, from which neither had come alive.
“Sorry for which?” Julius asked. “Then or now?”
Augustus said not a word.