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The Road to Endless Sleep

Jim Fiscus

Caesar's ghost stalked the Forum Romanum, but it was only the dictator's stern face staring down from his statue. Marble columns and facades glowed white under the sun beating against the broad stones of the Forum and the crowd filling the great plaza. The temples and basilica, hung with red and gold banners and garlands, enclosed the civic center of Rome. Fourteen years before, Marcus Antonius stood on the wide marble platform of the Rostra and rallied the people against the murderers of Caesar. Now, he would pass in triumph before the great speaker's platform. But even in victory, Antony knew that the people of Rome did not love him as they had loved Caesar. My troops lined the Via Sacra as it passed through the Forum before the Basilica of the Aemilii and Caesar's senate house, guarding against a surge from the crowd.

I am Quintus Petillus Celsus. My father was a centurion with Caesar in Spain, where I later joined the legions and fought with Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great. When Octavian's admiral Agrippa defeated Pompey, I was called a pirate. Facing slavery, I fled to the East and joined Antony's legions. Standing on the edge of the Rostra, I watched the crowd that packed the Forum, josteling to move closer to the route of the triumphal parade. I glanced behind me, where Cleopatra sat surrounded by courtiers and attendants. My quick glance turned into a stare as I noticed a woman of the court, whose dark hair and striking beauty held my attention. Our eyes met and she smiled. I turned from the unattainable back to the crowd.

Legion had fought legion in civil war and no triumph is awarded when Romans slaughter each other, so Antony claimed his Triumph was for victory over foreign princes allied with Octavian. Everyone knew it was Octavian's defeat he celebrated. Most citizens said Antony's victory meant the final death of the Republic. Half the Senate fled as his army neared Rome while others cowered in their country villas waiting for the political winds to calm.

Hundreds of carts laden with the arms and treasure captured by Antony had rolled over the broad stones of the Sacred Way on the first day. Hundreds more, filled with treasure donated by Cleopatra as proof of her friendship with Rome, followed on the second day. On this, the third day, wagons carried the broken remains of Octavian's fleet captured at Actium. Dancers and musicians clanging cymbals and blowing small horns pranced beside Octavian's shattered glory.

The triumphal parade had started from the Field of Mars as the first hour of the day began with the rising sun and wound through the city, through the Circus Maximus and on to the Forum. From the Forum, it would climb to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Crowds lined the route. The long hours of late spring had passed slowly. I stared across the crowd to the newly enlarged Basilica Aemilia, two stories of grand marble columns and arches, it's bronze roof gleaming under the afternoon sun. The crowd filled the space between the street and the columns of the basilica, pushing back against the booths of the merchants. The arches of the upper floor were crowded with more people watching the Triumph. Except, I realized, for the third archway which stood empty but for vague figures in the shadows. It might have just been a rich man and his sycophants wishing to avoid the crowd, but I could not tell.

I jumped to the paving stones. The scales of my armor clanked as I landed and the hobnails of my heavy sandals clicked on the stones as I pushed through the crowd to the Via Sacra. A legionnaire snapped to attention.


"Getting a closer look," I said, not ready to sound the alarm till I knew something was wrong.

Trumpets called for the attack and drummers beat the rhythm of the oars. A low wagon, so wide that it barely passed along the route, was pulled into the Forum. Atop the wagon, a model of Agrippa's flagship sailed to meet Antony's fleet. Dwarves in the tiny ship rowed at the air. A second wagon entered, also with a model of Agrippa's ship, its dwarf rowers moving their oars desperately as the beak of Antony's flagship appeared to crush it's side. Dwarf legionnaires hurled golden-tipped javelins at their attackers and fired miniature catapults, but the weapons bounced off the armored shell of the testudo navalis and fell to the street. Members of the crowd darted out to claim the gold spear points. Scores of prisoners followed the wagons. Antony would arrive next.

I sprinted across the street. I could not tell how many men were in the alcove, but they held bows. Four legionnaires watched the side street between the basilica and Caesar's new curia.

"You men, with me."

We pounded into the basilica, the crowd parting before us, and turned toward the staircase. I drew my sword and took three stairs at a time, the legionnaires behind me. Glancing through the first arch, I saw Antony's golden chariot entering the Forum.

A heavy curtain covered the third archway. Three thugs waited, as if protecting a wealthy client. They pulled swords from beneath their tunics. The leader lunged toward me. I blocked his thrust and slashed across his neck, opening his throat to the bone. His blood spurted across the scales of my armor. Two legionnaires hurled their pila, the javelins driving into the remaining thugs, who staggered back. Dying hands gripped the curtain, tearing it free.

Three archers stood overlooking the Forum. One spun, releasing his arrow. It sliced across my left my arm below the mail. He dropped his bow and twisted, reaching for a dagger as my sword plunged into his side. I pulled the blade free against the suction of his organs. Between his companions, I saw Antony's chariot on the Via Sacra, the crowd cheering. Concentrating on their release, the remaining archers tracked the general. A pilum thudded into the back of one man and his arrow flew toward the crowd. I kicked the second man in the back as he released. He staggered and fell from the window. His arrow missed Antony by a hand's breadth. The imperator stared upward at the basilica. His hand rose and the procession stopped.

The archer I had kicked from the building lay unmoving on the flagstones. Turning from the window, I glanced at the archer who had taken a javelin in the back and asked the legionnaire standing over him, "Is he alive?"

"Not for long, Centurion."

I knelt beside the man. The stench of his released bowels filled the alcove. "Who sent you?"

"I fight for Agrippa."

"Agrippa's head decorates the Rostra."

"His honor lives."

I stood slowly, aware suddenly of the deep gash in my biceps and the bright blood that ran down my arm. I nodded to the fallen archer. "We caught them flat-footed. Tear me a piece of his tunic." I wrapped the cloth around my arm. A tribune from Antony's guard clasped my shoulder. "The general wants to see you."

Antony stood in the golden chariot, using its height to study the crowd that surged forward to catch sight of the disturbance. Antony was fifty-four, his broad face puffy after years of dissipation. His thinning hair was marked by streaks of gray beneath a triumphator's golden laurel wreath. He wore a purple toga and his face was painted vermilion to match the statue of Jupiter on the Capitoline.

Antony stared at the prisoners who stood in chains before his chariot. Certain they would be led to their deaths from the Forum, most were broken men. One stood alone: Octavian, who would have followed Caesar as dictator of Rome. Antony pointed his ivory scepter at Octavian, who looked even thinner than when I had last seen him. "Octavian, I understand you planned to call yourself Augustus when you ruled Rome as king. Your rule shall be limited to the cell of the Tullianum, until the cord tightens around your throat."

The prisoner stared back at Antony, yielding nothing. He called out, speaking more to the crowd than to Antony, "You cannot hold what you have seized, Antony. You and your whore will follow me soon."

"Take Octavian," Antony said to the tribune beside me. "Place his head beside Agrippa's."

"Quintus Petillus Celsus, you have saved me again." Antony spoke softly, so only those near us could hear. "Come to me tomorrow at the end of the eighth hour. You will select and command the queen's bodyguard in Rome."

"Imperator," I said, already thinking of men I trusted who would be loyal to Antony—and to me.

* * *

Cleopatra had remodeled her mansion on the Palatine, turning a large dining room off the garden into a study. The house was her refuge. She kept the sycophants of her court at a country villa north of Rome that she seldom visited. I had served as head of her bodyguard for five years since Antony's triumph, protecting her when she was in Rome, as she was for most of the year. The queen spent mornings dealing with affairs of state, as she did today, even though Republican legions marched on Rome to overthrow her rule with Antony. I stood in the doorway waiting to give my daily report. Two days past the Ides of May, I was glad I wore a cloak over my military tunic to hold out the morning chill. The queen wore a heavy white robe studded with gold and jewels. She had pushed an unfinished plate of cheese and bread aside. She worked at a small table, reading a scroll recently arrived from Caesarion in Alexandria. I don't know if Caesar actually was the father of the queen's son, but the boy acted as Cleopatra's regent in Egypt. She dictated instructions to a secretary, speaking first in Greek, then added a few words in Egyptian. I understood the Greek.

Cleopatra's reputation, fostered by Octavian's propaganda, was of a whore and megalomaniac. She was forty-four, but her body had not gone to fat as many do. Still, the queen was no beauty. She had a long face with wide-set eyes and a high forehead. Her nose and chin were far too prominent and her features seemed heavy and thick in profile. Her dark hair was put up in tight rolls. Despite her lack of beauty, she bound people to her with the force of her presence, not with sex. The queen could also charm any man or woman with her grace and laughter, though I had not heard her laugh in months. She had captured Caesar, but not held him against his drive for power. Antony was a weaker man. He had tried to use Cleopatra for his own political goals, but had fallen in love. As commander of her bodyguard, I knew of everyone she saw and visited. She had lived as chastely as the most proper Roman matron during her five years in Rome. Antony was her only lover, and he spent more time drinking than loving.

Cleopatra set the scroll down, then gestured for me to enter and her secretary to leave. She spoke in Latin, her voice suddenly sounding exhausted, "I am tired of life in a land I do not understand." Her voice fell to a whisper. "Antony brought peace and closed the doors of the Temple of Janus. Why do the Romans reject him?"

I was a professional soldier and not party to the politics of Rome, and the queen had decided some time ago that she could speak to me in confidence and trust my answers. "In Egypt, you call yourself Queen of Kings. Romans fear kings, and reject them."

"Antony is dictator, not I."

"You and Antony are seen as one."

"Perhaps we are, and perhaps had we pretended to maintain the Republic and not taken power openly, we would have succeeded."

"No, Majesty. Romans would allow no woman to rule them, and the people see Antony as merely another strong man, a weak copy of Sulla or Caesar. After three generations of dictators and civil war both plebeians and patricians finally seem ready to truly reform and revive the Republic."

"Do the fools really think that the legions will allow that? If Antony falls, another general will replace him." Cleopatra closed her eyes a moment, then asked, "You're a soldier, Celsus. Can Antony defeat our enemies?"

"The Republicans bring eight legions against him. He has only six near the city. Still, the enemy is divided and Antony defeated the army the Republicans sent against him two years ago, but his legions have not been paid for two months and may go over to the enemy."

"His legions will be paid. Yet are we not like Pyrrhus, winning victories in a war we cannot win? I am pharaoh and must protect Egypt," Cleopatra said. She added, speaking so softly that I barely heard her, "But I will not desert him. Not while victory is possible."

"You would have fled Actium," Antony's voice bellowed from the door, "had we not quickly killed Agrippa and shattered his fleet."

I snapped to attention, but he ignored me.

"I gave you the world and you plot to desert me."

"I do not." Cleopatra stood and stepped toward him, returning without passion to an argument I had overheard before.

The five years since his Triumph had turned Antony into a pudgy old man. He wore a black loose-fitting tunic to hide his blubber, and failed. It had rained yesterday and washed some of the black dye from his hair, leaving blotches and streaks of gray.

"My love, I rule here with you. I also rule Egypt. I must be ready should the war not go well for us. I must protect my people," Cleopatra said. "We do not need Rome. Our power is in Egypt and the East."

"I tried staying in the East, and Octavian nearly destroyed me. Rome is the world. Flee home to Alexandria."

"Those who rule can't afford love, but I love you, Antony."

"Even though I am not Caesar?" he asked, for he had become obsessed with comparing himself to the Divine Julius.

"Caesar loved power. He did not love me and I did not love him. How often must I tell you?"

Antony's voice softened, and was filled with despair. "I can't lose you." Even in early morning, he stank of wine. His anger returned. "You expect me to lose and prepare for defeat."

"I prepare to save us both."

Anthony spun and stomped from the room.

Cleopatra watched him cross the garden and enter the main building. She looked at me, and I saw that her eyes were moist. "Even if he wins this battle, I fear that he will fall. Sometime, and suddenly. Go, and close the door, Celsus."

As I left the room, I saw one of Cleopatra's women, Neferet, waiting in the garden. She had been in Egypt for six months, and the moment that I saw her again, I understood Antony's greatest fear. Truly, the soul of a lover rests in the body of his beloved. Neferet held my soul, and I hers.

Neferet was Egyptian, not Greek. Black hair fell to her shoulders, framing large eyes, and a small, straight, nose. The sun had darkened her skin. She was thirty-two, six years younger than I. She walked with the grace of a dancer, which she had been when she first served Cleopatra.

I led her back toward the front of the garden. "The queen wishes privacy," I said, speaking softly. "I didn't know you were back from Alexandria."

"The Tiber is at flood, and the captain had the ship rowed all the way to the old docks at the Forum Boarium. We arrived at dusk, and stayed aboard last night rather than risk traveling through the city after dark." Neferet's Latin carried a slight accent of Alexandria. "I hoped you would be here, Quintus."

I led Neferet between low shrubs to a colonnade that circled the garden. A painting in bright blues, red, and gold captured the rising sun over the Nile delta. The deep shadows of the colonnade gave only the illusion of privacy, but I could wait no longer and kissed Neferet, holding her tightly. After a moment, she pulled away.

"Perhaps the small bath is available? I am caked with salt spray and road dust." She smiled. "Would you, as a citizen and soldier of Rome, help a foreign slave? And we must talk." I had first seen Neferet standing beside the queen at Antony's Triumph, and had thought her a lady of the court. We met, and she infatuated me with her beauty and quickly captured me with her intelligence. Only after infatuation turned to love did I realize she was a slave.

The main bathing room with its hot and cold pools was attached to the mansion, but a smaller chamber opened onto the garden. Hot and cold water from the main baths flowed into a small granite pool, and could be mixed to give the temperature wished by the bather. Diffuse light filled the room from windows high in the walls. Warm air passed from a furnace through the channels of the hypocaust under the floor and on through channels in walls, making the room pleasantly warm.

I walked ahead of Neferet to make sure the room was empty and began letting hot water into the pool. I tossed my cloak onto a marble bench and turned as I heard the door close.

Neferet wore a dark brown cloak for travel. I stood, and she came into my arms. "Quintus, I missed you." She held me tightly, her face pressed against my shoulder. "I feared the queen would not call me back to Rome."

"Then I would have had to travel to Alexandria to find you." We stood holding each other for what seemed an instant but might have been many minutes before I pulled away. "Cleopatra doesn't send ships for the convenience of a slave, however favored. There is more behind the timing of your arrival."

"I obey the queen's will." Neferet shook her head slightly. "More than that. She has earned my loyalty with her kindness. But the real news is not the loyalty of a slave. I brought enough gold from Egypt to pay a dozen legions."

"You may have just saved Antony from defeat." I crossed back to the pool and checked the temperature of the water, adjusting the flow to warm it slightly. I heard the rustle of cloth behind me and turned. Neferet tossed her cloak aside. Underneath, she wore an Egyptian dress of nearly transparent white linen that showed the soft curves of her slim body as she came to me.

My hands gently stroked her back, then slipped the dress from her shoulders. She stepped back and it fell from her body. I felt my passion, my need for her, overcoming me. Even more, I wanted to protect her, though I knew it was folly to love a slave, especially the slave of a queen.

* * *

Spring had turned hot in the past week, and the morning light filtering through the walls of Antony's tent seemed harsh. Three days before, I had escorted two chests of Cleopatra's gold to Antony to pay his men. The impending battle and the presence of an enemy had restored Antony's vigor.

"Letting you serve me was my wisest act, Quintus Petillus." He motioned to his slaves, who quickly strapped on his bronze breastplate.

Antony walked to the open flap of his campaign tent, glancing out at the remains of the camp that sat on a low hill overlooking narrow plains a day's hard march southwest of Rome. The four and a half legions of his army had formed across the valley, blocking the Via Latina. Five cohorts, half a legion, stood in reserve behind the line. Five Republican legions under Lucius Munatius waited behind a ditch and low rampart. Wide ditches topped with a palisade curved to the rear, guarding their flanks.

"Imperator." A short, stocky man limped toward us. A dark red cloak covered his armor. Canidius served as consul with Antony. His limp was the result of a wound he had received the day we defeated Octavian's army at the River Luro. Today, he commanded the reserves.

Antony acknowledged Canidius with a nod. "Any news of Marcus Titius?"

"Nothing since yesterday's report that his army was closing on Rome from the northeast, along the Via Salaria. The Twelfth Legion will try to slow his advance. Imperator, once more I say that we should withdraw to Rome, where we are strongest. The enemy does not have enough men to storm the city and has no siege equipment. If we attack Munatius behind his defenses, we waste our strength.

"No. We will destroy Munatius here, then turn north and crush Titus."

A slave set a stool beside Antony's horse, a beautifully groomed black mare. Antony pulled himself onto the horse, helped by a push from the slave. "Canidius, join your men." Antony kicked his horse into a trot.

Canidius studied the hills around us. "I wish I knew where Titus was." He stepped to his horse. "Stay here until you know how the battle goes. The queen will want a full report."

* * *

I watched the battle from the camp, angry that I could not join in the fight. At the same time, I feared that I betrayed Cleopatra and Neferet by not riding immediately to Rome. Below me, Antony's army stood in cohorts ready for battle. Suddenly, a red banner flew above Antony's command group. Moments later, the silver and gold standards of the legions, cohorts, and maniples raised, flashing, in the sun. Trumpets sounded, and Antony's legions swept forward, the leading units forming wedges to penetrate the enemy line. The ditch, and the hurled javelins of the enemy, stopped the advance. The battle raged along the entire front, a constant shifting and jerking of tiny figures. From time to time, the rear lines moved forward to replace the men in contact with the enemy.

The armies fought for over an hour, deadlocked. I saw that Republican troops were moving from the flanking ditches to support their front. I called a messenger, but before I could send him three cohorts of the reserve moved left. They seemed to crawl across the ground, but I knew they were nearly running. They swung around the flank and formed alongside the ditch before they charged. The attack swept the weakened flank guard aside. The enemy line tried to curl back to meet the attack, and failed. The line broke into small segments that were quickly surrounded by Antony's forces. A few groups surrendered. Most formed squares and fought on.

Something tugged at my cloak, and I turned, my gaze following the pointing hand of the messenger. A widening stream of men poured into the shallow valley from tracks across the hills to the north. They had already formed into maniples and cohorts on the valley floor. I knew that Titus must have marched cross-country to reach us.

I was the senior officer in the camp. I grabbed the messenger's arm. "Tell Canidius the enemy is behind us and to bring the last of the reserves. We will hold till he arrives." I sent a second rider to inform Antony.

About three hundred legionnaires were in the camp. I ordered them into line facing the new enemy, each man with as many pila as were available. Antony had taken all the archers, but left many slingers who waited for the enemy well in front of the line.

The weak enemy cohort, about four hundred men, I estimated, rushed up the low hill. If they had taken a few extra minutes to form properly they might have smashed through our line, but they attacked raggedly. Our slingers hurled heavy stones, smashing skulls and breaking limbs. The Republicans closed to fifty yards, and the slingers retreated behind the legionnaires. The tall, curved shields of the enemy matched our own scuta. Their mail shirts and bronze helmets mirrored those of my men. They reached twenty yards from our low rampart. I called, "Now," and my single trumpeter signaled attack. The men standing in line hurled their pila as the enemy cast theirs. Our extra javelins, three or four for each man, fell on the enemy in rapid volleys, and we drew our swords.

"Stand and gut the bastards!" A legionnaire fell back from the line, his face ripped open, blood pouring from slashed vessels. Another fell where he stood, a gladius stabbing through his mail. I rammed my swagger stick into my belt and drew my sword. Grabbing a fallen scutum, I stepped into the gap in the line.

A javelin smashed into my shield. The heavy point of the pilum jabbed through my scutum near its top. The weight of the point and shaft pulled the shield away from me, and I dropped it and drew my long dagger. A gladius stabbed toward my groin. I deflected the blow and countered with a thrust toward his chest. His shield knocked my arm down and I used the force of his blow to drive my sword into his groin. He fell, and others took his place. The man before me swung the edge of his shield toward my face, thrusting his gladius at my chest. I ducked under his shield, sweeping his sword aside with mine and plunging my dagger into his body. I twisted it free and sliced his throat. The world became a sea of sound. Above the clash of metal on metal rose the grunts and bellows of the soldiers and the screams of wounded men. I don't know how long we fought, but we held. We held ground red with blood.

Behind me, I heard the blaring of a trumpet. I stepped back as the first maniples of the reserve strengthened our line. The standard bearers, tall men cloaked in the skulls and skins of bears, ran forward, the golden palms and medallions of their standards held high for the men to see. The reserve rushed to fight before their standards, and the enemy fell back. I heard Canidius shouting to hold firm.

The enemy charged again. They crashed against us, as if a wave shattering on a rocky headland. As with the sea, they withdrew slightly only to attack again and again before finally retreating to the bottom of the hill.

"Quintus Petillus, to me," I heard Antony call my name.

Antony was directing men into our line. I glanced toward the main battle. The enemy was withdrawing in good order. Half of our army moved to our relief while the others guarded against a counterattack. On the hills north of us, the paths were covered in bronze and red as more troops flooded toward the battle. I counted fifteen Republican cohorts forming and several moving around our camp toward the earlier fight. I recognized the standard of the Twelfth Legion, and knew they had gone over to the enemy. Soon, Antony would face the enemy's full strength, and I knew he would fail.

"Imperator." Jogging to stand before Antony, I felt a sharp pain in my left leg, and saw blood running from a gash on my thigh.

"Celsus, your duty is to protect the queen. Tell her we won. Her resolve must not weaken." He saw my wound, and turned toward a wound dresser, "You, bind this man's leg."

I sat on a rock beside a capsarius who worked on a gaping wound in a legionnaire's side. I looked to the wounded man's face, recognized an old comrade as he died, and cursed again that Roman fought Roman. The capsarius paused only an instant before turning to examine my leg. "Deep but clean. I'll stitch you up and bind the wound. You won't feel a thing."

* * *

A messenger who knew the region led me south across country. We reached the Via Appia as sun set at the end of the twelfth hour. The moon was nearly full, and gave good light so that we were able to push on to Rome. The commander of the guard at the Capena Gate passed us through at the start of the fourth hour of the night and we entered Rome near the Circus Maximus. I gave the messenger my horse and he rode to find the tribune commanding the city. I threaded my way up the slope of the Palatine. With every step up the steep hill, pain knifed through my leg.

Two of my men guarded the door of Cleopatra's mansion. Others, I knew, waited on the roof and in a neighboring house. Light shined weakly through a small window in the door. "Is all well?"

"Bit of a riot down in the Suburia earlier in the day, sir, but we've had no trouble here." One of the soldiers knocked twice on the door. "Open for Quintus Petillus Celsus."

I blinked against the light, and saw Gaius Decius, my second in command, walking down the long hall from the atrium. I handed my cloak to a slave.

"Celsus, you let some bastard stab you."

"Only one of the many who tried."

"And the battle?" he asked as we walked down the hall toward the atrium.

"When I left, Antony was trapped between two armies. The battle may be over by now. What happened in the Suburia?"

"Antony left orders to seize the few Republican senators still in the city. They hid in the Suburia."

"Senators hiding in the slums? How the pompous have fallen."

"The people welcomed them and fought the troops sent to seize them. The city has not felt this way in my lifetime, Celsus, with all the citizens standing together. The troops withdrew."

"Put the men on alert."

"They already are."

"Good." I spoke so only he would hear. "There is an Egyptian quinquereme at the dock near the Forum Boarium. Before I left, I made Gordian her captain and ordered him to replace the Egyptian crew with men he trusts. I sent the ship's Macedonian marines to guard the queen's villa."

"Then they're cut off from Rome by the enemy."

"Just as well. Send for Gordian."

"Centurion." Cleopatra's chief clerk, an old Greek slave, stood just inside the atrium. "The queen wishes to see you."

I followed the slave up the stairs leading to Cleopatra's private quarters on the second floor, his shock of white hair a beacon in the dim light. Two of the queen's Macedonians guarded her door, tall men with oval shields, spears, and gilded breastplates and helmets. Antony allowed a handful of them to remain in the city. The clerk tapped on a door and stood aside when it opened. I tried not to limp as I entered.

Cleopatra lay on her couch, wearing a white robe, her long, dark, hair in disarray from sleep. A small table had been pushed against the couch. Several of her women waited across the room. I saw Neferet, and wanted to take her in my arms, but instead inclined my head slightly to the queen. "Majesty."

"Celsus, you look as if you need some wine." The queen held up her hand, and Neferet brought a tray with dark blue bottles holding wine and water. Neferet again wore the thinnest of linen dresses, this one of dark yellow.

Neferet mixed Cleopatra's wine, her gaze coming back again and again to the bandage on my leg. I glanced down, and saw that it was lightly stained with blood. Neferet filled my goblet, mixing my wine half-and-half.

"All of you, out."

Neferet and the other slaves left by a side door.

The first sip of wine rushed through my body, and I felt myself sway slightly with exhaustion and silently cursed my weakness. The queen nodded toward a stool.

"Thank you, Majesty." Quickly, I reported Antony's battle with the first Republican army and the arrival of the second in the moment of his victory.

"Is Antony dead?" Her voice nearly trembled.

"Majesty, I . . ."

"No." She was again in command. "Do not speculate. We must wait for news. You have two hundred men in my bodyguard, I believe."

"I command a maniple, two centuries, of legionnaires and a century of archers and slingers. We are close to full strength, and have nearly two hundred and fifty men."

"Will the men remain loyal?"

"They will. Most have served you since I raised your guard five years ago."

"I should not have asked, Celsus, but thank you for the reassurance. Get some rest, and send in Neferet as you leave." Cleopatra smiled, showing for a moment the charm that events had driven from her. "No, have Neferet look to your wound."

* * *

Neferet lay with her head on my shoulder and I gently stroked her hair. The musky scent of her recent arousal enveloped me. She rolled over, and I felt the warmth of her breasts on my chest. "Celsus, my love, tell me again of how you gave Antony and my queen victory over Octavian?" She grinned and kissed me.

"No, love, I'll not waste my energy talking." But I remembered. After joining Antony's legions in Alexandria, I was sent to help guard the shipyards. One day, I saw children from the East playing with toy boats. They had placed the shell of a turtle on one. I realized a shell could protect a warship, as the raised shields of the legions formed the testudo and protected the men. I told my idea to a ship builder. He was an honest man, and told Antony. Antony promoted me to centurion, restoring the honor I lost when I fled from Agrippa. At Actium, our testudo navalis broke through to Agrippa's flagship, bringing victory. As the memories slipped from my mind, I realized just how cleaver Neferet had been. She had reminded me of a victory when I needed the confidence the memory would bring. The room was hot, but I held her to me for a moment longer.

"Quintus," her voice was serious, "are you as different from other Romans as you seem? Does your passion really include love?" Her wide, dark, eyes stared into mine. "I am foolish to hope so, yet I pray to Isis that it does."

"Most men would call me weak for loving as I do. They say that of Antony," I said. "I used to agree with them, but life changes us all, and it has changed me. You have changed me. The world believes slaves are only for pleasure and not for love." I felt her tense, and knew I had spoken her fears. "For most Romans, the opinions of the world count for everything. I have learned that a man's honor, his worth, has little to do with the views of others. Fortuna was with me when I met you, and I want you with me, always.

There was a loud knock on the door. "Centurion, the ship captain is here."

"I'll be there shortly."

"Our time is over, isn't it, my love?" Neferet asked. I saw that she was trying to hold back tears, and I knew she meant more than our time of rest.

I felt an overwhelming sadness that I pushed from my mind. "Perhaps. But perhaps not. Neferet, you are a slave bound to your queen. I am a soldier bound by honor to my general. We must help each other." I stood and started dressing.

Neferet dropped her long, gauzelike dress over her head and put one foot up on the couch. "Perhaps, Neferet, a more practical dress for travel, as lovely as it is on you."

"I'm a pharaoh's slave. I don't have anything more practical." She hiked up the dress and strapped a dagger high on her right calf. Neferet grinned when she saw my surprise. "How can I help you, my love, if I am defenseless."

* * *

Gaius Decius and I stood over a map of the city that we had spread across a table in the atrium. "The enemy is outside the Coline Gate northwest of the city. One attack has been repulsed already."

"Give each legionnaire a hundred denarii and each auxiliary fifty. Tell them there will be twice as much at the end of the day. Send seven sections to guard the ship."

"Seven sections, Centurion?" I turned to a short, compact man standing near the door who had spoken.

"Sailors!" I mumbled, and said, "Eight men to a section, Gordian. Ten sections to a century."

Gordian had spent two decades on the seas and a third piloting barges on the Tiber, and his face reflected every storm he had faced and every day he had stood beneath the broiling sun. He could also tie more knots than any other man I knew. "I understand the river has fallen nearly a foot. Will you be able to take the ship back to the sea?"

"Yes, Centurion. I know Father Tiber. Sir, I have a request. May I bring my family aboard: my wife and three children, and a slave who has been with us for twenty years? I do not want to leave them alone in Rome."

I needed Gordian's loyalty, and we could endure the extra crowding. "They can bring only what they can carry. What about the families of your crew?"

"I chose good men, Centurion, but I also chose men without families."

I left the atrium and crossed the garden to Cleopatra's study. "Majesty, we must leave now to reach the river safely."

"We wait for Antony." Cleopatra looked up from her desk. "I thought I could leave before I knew if he lived or died, but I can not." She pointed to six chests, each about a foot square. "Celsus, if I die in Rome, the gold and jewels must reach Alexandria. Caesarian will need them to buy the loyalty of the legions in Egypt."

"I promise you that the gold will not fall to the enemy." I saw a legionnaire hurrying across the garden. "Excuse me, Majesty."

"Centurion, trouble in the street."

I hurried to the roof of the mansion, pain ripping through my thigh as I climbed the ladder. I stared at smoke rising above the Suburia and from farther north near the Coline Gate. A dozen thick, gray columns roiled into the sky, blending with the low, heavy clouds. The stench of the burning city hung in the air. Automatically, I checked the readiness of the archers who lined the roof. Twenty legionnaires guarded the front of the building. South, the street was empty for the two blocks I could see before it curved. North, toward the Forum, a mob of several hundred filled the street between the walls of single story houses. They surged toward us. I called to the archers, "Fire," and the mob fell back under the impact of the arrows.

An archer pointed north. "Behind the mob, coming up from the Forum."

I saw several dozen legionnaires moving slowly toward us, and was certain Antony was with them. The mob kept him from reaching us, and he formed his men in line to repel attack. "If the mob comes into range, fire on them," I ordered the archers.

I skimmed down the ladder into the garden, and ran to the front of the mansion. "Four sections with me. You also." I pointed to our trumpeter.

I led them into the street. They were armed with spears fixed with broad, sharp iron points. "Form two lines across the street."

"Remember your training. Advance in rushes of twenty paces. Cut them apart, but let them retreat. Ignore the trumpet and follow my commands." I glanced at the trumpeter, and said, "Sound Hold in Place," hoping that Antony would understand my tactics.

Advancing nearly shoulder to shoulder, the men would have been too packed together to fight effectively as swordsmen, but it was easy to charge forward till we contacted the mob, and to stab and slash at unarmored bodies with the long spears. The mob shuddered, fell back, and we charged again across the bodies of the fallen. Again, they retreated. Dozens fled into the shadows at each alley. We let them go, and I left a few men of the second line to guard against their return. Then, over the heads of the last, the bravest, of the mob I saw the helmets of Antony's men. They stood blocking the street, just past an intersection. Trapped between us, the last of the mob fled.

"Celsus, good man," Antony called, sounding for a moment the great leader he had wanted to be. "More men like you and we would have broken them all. I should have given you command of a legion." Blood and dirt covered Antony's armor and tunic. He grasped my right forearm in a tight grip with both hands, and his next words came from a man haunted by failure speaking in a voice that trembled. "Canidius is dead. We lost five legions, slaughtered or become traitors. These few men are all that is left of us."

"Then it has come to the triarii, and there aren't many of us," I said, hoping that the mobs had not circled the Palatine and blocked our escape.

In the guardroom, Antony held out his arms as slaves stripped off his gore-splattered armor. He took a cup of wine and drained it in a single gulp, pulled off his tunic and dropped a clean one over his head.

"Imperator, there is a ship waiting at the Tiber."

"Don't mock me with an empty title. The imperium, my command, is worthless without legions. You expected my defeat, didn't you, Celsus?"

"I expected neither victory nor defeat, General, but I prepared for both. We must leave now. Let me send for Cleopatra."


The queen was in the room before I turned to fetch her, Neferet beside her. "I would not cry until I saw your body," Cleopatra said, touching Antony's cheek with her hand, "and now, I don't have to, for you are here. You are alive. We have legions in Egypt and gold to keep them loyal. We do not need Rome."

Antony nodded, saying nothing. Looking at the shattered remains of Antony, I took back my honor rather than leave it in his shaking hands. Then I looked again at Cleopatra. She wore a simple dress with Neferet's brown cloak over it. Her hair was down, and had been cut off to match Neferet's. Neferet was dressed as the queen, in a dress of the finest white linen boarded with golden thread. She wore a heavy gold necklace studded with lapis lazuli and jewels and golden bracelets on each arm. She wore a wig that matched Cleopatra's normal rolled hairdo.

* * *

We left the mansion in the middle of the afternoon. A third of Rome seemed to be burning. The clouds had grown even denser, forcing the smoke to settle over the city and turning the afternoon to twilight and streets into dark, shadow-filled corridors. My scouts reported that Republican troops were north and east of the Palatine. If they occupied the Circus Maximus and the streets around it, we could be cut off from the ship. I detached five sections of legionnaires in the lead and to guard the flanks, commanded by Gaius Decius. Three litters followed, each born by eight slaves. The first carried Neferet, dressed as Cleopatra, the queen dressed as a slave, and Antony. The second and third carried the queen's gold. The handful of men who had come with Antony followed the litters. I was angry, enraged that Cleopatra endangered Neferet with the disguise. I would, I knew, let the queen die to save the slave.

The air was hot and muggy. Within minutes I was bathed in sweat under my armor. Scattered members of the mob scuttled behind us, staying out of bowshot. Every time I glanced behind us, the mob had grown larger.

The rear guard formed in line, the archers and slingers firing from in front of the legionnaires, retreating behind the line when the mob came too close. Sensing loot but sill wary, the mob charged and retreated again and again, hurling rocks and the occasional spear or pilum. More and more, they attacked from our flank nearest the Tiber, and I ordered men to charge and drive them off. We moved slowly, leaving our dead behind us. At the back of the mob I caught sight of several men in armor, and knew they were directing the attack.

"Keep them back, but don't let yourself to be cut off," I ordered the senior section leader. I jogged toward the front of the column, wincing as I felt my wound tear open. Thunder crashed above us and rain fell in a deluge. Within seconds, I was soaked.

The advance guard neared the bottom of the hill. Gaius Decius saw me, turned, and I called, "They're trying to herd us away from the Tiber."

In that instant, a wedge of legionnaires charged from an alley and struck our vanguard. My men flung their spears at the enemy and pulled their swords. Decius and the flank guard charged the attackers as I called, "Antony's men, to the front. Rear guard, hold." The litter was on the ground, Antony standing, drawing his sword. Cleopatra and Neferet were beside him, protected by the queen's half dozen Macedonian guards.

A swordsman broke from the shadows. I parried and drove my sword into his chest. He twisted and fell away, wrenching the sword from my hand. I ducked low under a blow from another man and punched into his groin, staggering him back. He was taken in the throat by one of my men. I grabbed his fallen sword.

All of the Macedonians were dead, but they had driven off the attack on the litter. The men attacking the vanguard fell back as Decius and the flankers struck them. "Clear the way," I called, and rushed down the steep street toward Decius.

"Celsus . . ." Antony's call turned into a cry of surprise. I spun, my sword up to parry a blow. The image froze in my mind. Antony, feet tangled in the cloak of a fallen soldier, slipping on the wet cobbles, falling onto my gladius as I turned.

We both stared at his blood pouring over my sword. He stepped back, pulling himself free, his hands clasping the wide wound. He sat straight down, the slightest moan escaping his lips.

I knelt beside him, but was pushed aside by Cleopatra. "Antony!" She looked up at Neferet. "Bandages. Something to bandage him." Cleopatra pressed her hands against the wound.

"My queen, my Love," Antony whispered. He leaned forward, weakening quickly. He looked up, finding my face. "Celsus, save her."

"Imperator." Around us, my men fought and the last attackers retreated. "Neferet, the queen." Neferet pulled Cleopatra back as Antony fell to the side, the rain already washing his blood from the stones.

Cleopatra mumbled something, an invocation I think, in Egyptian. She pulled free of Neferet and held Antony's head as he died. Legionnaires lifted Antony into the litter. The queen sat with his head in her lap with Neferet sat behind her, trying to console her.

"Decius, lead off."

We reached the bottom of the Palatine and turned toward the river. Rounding the end of the Circus, we angled east to pass south of the Forum Boarium.

I realized we were on one of the great avenues Antony had followed during his triumph as he rode toward the Forum, Octavian in chains before him. So he had entered Rome. So he left it.

The doors of a warehouse stood open ahead of us. I motioned Neferet to stay where she was and signaled the remains of the rear guard to close around the litters. Decius waved a section forward, and the men dashed through the doorway. I followed with Decius. Several legionnaires lay dead along with a dozen other men. Otherwise, the building was empty. "Bring the litters inside and get those doors shut," I told Decius, and nodded to a section leader, "Your section with me." I led the way out the far door of the warehouse.

The dock was empty, the ship gone. I felt hope vanish.

"Centurion! Quintus Petillus!" I looked to the river. The quinquereme was about fifty feet off the bank, held against the current by ropes secured up-river and others running to the dock. It was nearly hidden by the pounding rain and the smoke haze that clung to the Tiber. Gordian stood in the stern beside the tiller, hands cupped as he called again, "Pull us in. Stern first." My men rushed to the ropes and began pulling the ship back to the dock. The quinquereme came into clear view, her single bank of oars raised to keep clear of the docks, she was large for her type, nearly one hundred and thirty feet long and eighteen wide. Five slaves, I knew, manned each oar on the hellishly cramped lower deck.

I called back into the warehouse, "Decius, bring the litters." I heard a crash from the building, but before I could react, I saw the mob closing along the dock from north and south. The ship nudged the dock and sailors leapt ashore to tie her securely as others pushed a wide plank to the dock. A score of legionnaires followed the sailors and formed a thin line between the river and the warehouse. My men formed a line protecting the other end of the dock.

"Decius, get the litters out here!" I stepped into the warehouse, and into chaos. The far doors were shattered. Men swarmed in battle in the cavernous building. The queen's litter lay on its side, Antony's body sprawled on the dirt floor. Cleopatra knelt beside him. Neferet stood behind her holding her dagger, her fine gown soaked with water, torn, and covered with dirt. The other litters were also tipped over. The slaves had fled.

A centurion leading the attack shouted, "Capture the whore. Don't let Cleopatra escape."

I charged across the floor, stabbing the centurion as I shoved him out of my way. An attacker spun to face me. I parried his thrust and slashed at his arm. He fell back, grasping at the stub of his wrist.

Two of my men fell. Cleopatra stared into the face of an attacker. His gladius struck like a serpent, stabbing into her breast. Cleopatra grabbed his arm, and Neferet drove her dagger into his side. The last attacker pushed past the queen and grabbed Neferet, pulling her toward the door. I thrust my sword into his back, sensed motion behind me, and spun. I just held back my blow as I recognized Decius.

"We're clear for the moment."

"Get those chests aboard the ship. Have the men ready to board." I looked at Cleopatra, who had fallen across Antony. "They have traveled the road to endless sleep. She died the descendent of kings and Antony as a general of Rome. Bring their bodies. They will have proper rites."

The mob held back, still fearing my men. I pulled Neferet aside. "The masquerade is too dangerous." Her eyes seemed empty and she was shaking, but she tossed the wig aside. I grabbed Antony's cloak from the litter and wrapped it around her. We boarded quickly, and I stood beside Neferet as we cast free of the dock and let Father Tiber carry us from the city. I held Neferet to me, and felt her pull away. She was crying. "Neferet."

"When I was a child and first her slave, I thought Cleopatra was the incarnation of Isis. Today, I would have died to protect her as we fought. If I still believed she were the Goddess, I would follow her in death even now." Her tears slowed. "I will mourn for her, but I will not die for her memory." She looked up at me. "It would take me from you."

I kissed her, then turned, and stared into the faces of my men who had survived. The smoke thinned as we moved down river, but I saw scarcely a century of them on the deck. I glanced down at the chests of Cleopatra's treasure. I called to a crewman, "Tell the slaves that if they pull us to safety they will all be free men with gold in their purses." Then, I shouted to the men on deck, "Legionnaires, sailors, you will all be wealthy."

Gordian stood beside the tiller. He grinned. "We don't sail for Alexandria, do we, Centurion?"

I kissed Neferet. "From this moment, you are free," then smiled at Gordian. "Spain is beautiful in the spring, Gordian."



End Note:

My thanks to Plutarch for his comment that the soul of a lover rests in the body of another and to Propertius' eulogy of Cleopatra for my title.



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