“You’re thinking of her again, aren’t you? Your wife.”
Trajan disconnected from his reverie. The heart-warming images of his wife’s face fell from his sight along with her endless almond eyes and luscious raven locks. He missed every little thing about her, especially her scent. Honeysuckle and olive oil. The hollow in his heart expanded.
“How did you know?” He asked.
“An educated guess,” said Sertorius. He shrugged his bony shoulders. “You always make those dove eyes when you’re cavorting in dreamland.”
The two friends indulged in a final cup of wine together at Sertorius’ modest villa on the city outskirts. They were going to need it.
“I miss her, Sertorius. I miss them both.”
“I know you do. I would miss them too. It’s easy for me to say but try not to worry, they are safe in the countryside with Perrius. As of now, we have more pressing concerns…”
But nothing was of greater concern to Trajan than his wife and daughter. Little over a week had passed absent their company, and already he felt more withered than at any time in his existence. Weary, like a millstone hung from a rope around his neck, dragging his soul into the dirt. Strange, considering he frequently spent months, even years apart from his family while on campaign with the army. He put it down to the times. Stress ruled supreme. Surprisingly, thankfully, true to his word, Hostilius the butcher had not yet sold them out to the Emperor, content it seemed as long as his palm was continuously greased with silver. That did not detract from the ominous feeling swimming in Trajan’s gut. How long would the uneasy truce with the butcher last? He wanted to vomit, regurgitate his woes, all that paranoia, the fear and bubbling anger. But it wouldn’t come up. Instead, the malicious concoction stewed inside him. For days he been convinced that the Emperor’s lackeys would burst into his home at any moment. The house was so empty without Penelope and Aggripina… The slightest noise beyond its suffocating walls had him reaching for his sword. He lived on eggshells. Flickering shadows on the wall had started to look like his enemies lying in wait.
When were they coming for him? How much did they know?
“Are you ready for tonight?” Sertorius enquired.
Trajan had to be. He was always ready, even if he didn’t feel it. A soldier through and through. “Tell me again, who is this friend of yours? I want to go over everything again. “
“Septimus Occulus, one of the more well connected back benchers. He made his name in the silk trade years back. More importantly, he’s not too fond of the Emperor. Attilo’s latest actions have raised the hackles of many of the lesser nobility.”
“And what does this man have to do with us? I agreed to meet with my captain, not a senator.”
Trajan had sent a carrier pigeon to Captain Servilius at the nearby camp in Anturia. His legions were stationed there, preparing for the campaign against the Getae. If the Gods were good, Servilius would already be in the city. He had commanded the man to come alone.
“He could be a useful ally, don’t toss stones at the man before he has a chance to have his say. I had to move a lot of pieces to secure a meeting with him.”
Distrustful of anyone beyond their tight inner circle, Trajan snorted. “Useful how? If he is known for his dissent, associating with him sounds like a great idea.”
“Now now, no need for the sarcasm. His distaste for the Emperor is not common knowledge. We will benefit from having Occulus on our side. He’s filthy rich. Since the law forbids the legions from being stationed in the city on leave, the soldiers loyal to you are nowhere close. Should things turn sour, Occulus has the resources to protect us. He owns a small private army, with a sizeable contingent here in the capital. We meet him at the watchtower with Servilius, discuss our plans, explain how we can benefit one another, then we get out of there. I do not want to remain in his company for long. Occulus can be an insufferable bastard once his tongue starts wagging. “
What were they hoping to achieve? Trajan could only wonder. He was not even sure that Sertorius knew. What would they do with an army, ride off into the sunset with Occulus? Renounce the Emperor and break away from the Imperium? Where would they go and what would they do? So many questions. Too many. The millstone grew heavier and heavier…
Sertorius placed a gentle hand on Trajan’s shoulder. “We should get going, arriving late would only annoy Occulus. And what of your man Servilius? You are certain we can count on him?”
“Aye, he’s solid.”
It was all Sertorius had needed to hear. There were no words to describe Trajan’s gratitude to the man he had known since childhood. Sertorius had worked tirelessly behind the scenes, drawing on his contacts, dredging up favours from old acquaintances. It was Sertorius who paid off Hostilius, Sertorius who risked the greater stretch of neck in casting a probing net amongst the fickle members of the senate. He leapt head-first into a seething pit of peril at Trajan’s side. Of course, he had questioned Trajan’s sanity and attempted to dissuade him at every turn, but ultimately, he had stuck with him through the storm. The Emperor was a despot and something needed to be done. Neither man knew what that was, only that they were in this together.
As they left the villa and stepped out into the cool night, Trajan checked the dagger in his belt. The weight of it at his side was reassuring. He hoped he would not have to use it. They swept in silence through the lonely streets, past a paltry handful of merchants packing away their stools, and into the outermost suburb of the city. Silence gripped this area of Denerem and held on tightly.
“There,” Sertorius said, pointing out the abandoned watchtower ahead.
The crummy old structure had seen better days, its stones cracked and worn, washed black with grime. It had once formed a part of the city defenses in generations past. Denerem had enjoyed a surge of exponential growth since those early days. Now the decrepit shell was little more than a faded memory. Trajan stared up at the crooked spire, which climbed high into the night sky. It looked like it could collapse at any moment. Just below the spire, a ruddy orange glow filtered through the cracks of a boarded window.
“What a shithole,” he commented. “You certainly have good taste when it comes to shady meeting places…”
Sertorius chuckled. “You know you love me. The Emperor is hardly going to turn up at such a droll lump of rock, is he? That’s all I care about.” He paused. “Are you ready? Once we go up there and set this ball rolling, there is no going back…”
No going back… They had crossed that line long ago.
Sertorius nodded and clapped him on the shoulder. Then they passed through the double doors and hiked up the winding staircase, their boots squelching on stone steps masked in slime. As they ascended, Trajan heard hushed voices bouncing back and forth… They stopped at the second storey. There was no door, so both men stepped into the single room through a drooping archway…
The room was steeped in darkness. The dancing flame of a single lamp shimmered from the sill by the window. An orange whisper, barely sufficient to see by. But it was enough. Enough to make out the stoic grooves in Captain Servilius’ face. He was sitting on a chair in the corner. Trajan was about to greet him, when another man glided in front of him. So close, he could smell the stranger’s sour breath. Servilius would have to wait. Wisps of light writhed over the stranger’s robes. It might have been a trick of the lamp, but the man looked dangerously ill. His expression gaunt and sallow. Eyes as dark as the encompassing gloom surrounding them, stared straight into Trajan’s soul.
He nodded. “You must be senator Occulus.”
“Seems we have a genius here…”
Ignoring the quip, Trajan glanced back at Sertorius… Who was this idiot? He was here to plot, not to trade insults.
Sertorius shrugged apologetically.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Occulus continued. “Lucius Trajan, esteemed General of the silver legions. Your reputation precedes you.”
Trajan turned back, squinting at Occulus through the gloom. “I wish I could say the same.”
“I very much doubt that…We are different animals you and I. You’re a soldier. Tell me, are you a loyal man? Soldiers are notoriously loyal, no? Loyal to their commanders… To their Emperor?”
“Ig you are loyal to the Emperor, then you and I cannot do business. The only good Emperor is a dead one.”
A dead one? Was that the plan? To assassinate the Emperor? Such lunacy! Surely not… “That’s what you want, to kill the Emperor?”
Occulus smiled, but the gesture didn’t reach his dark, dark eyes. “Yes, yes I do. And I have heard that you are remarkably good at killing…”
“It’s the only way, Trajan,” whispered Sertorius at his back. “The only way we will be free.”
Had this been the intention of Sertorius all along? By no stretch of the imagination was it implausible to Trajan. His closest friend was a shrewd operator. What shocked him was the fact he had not revealed his designs sooner. Perhaps he thought that he might try to stop him…
Occulus inched closer. “The question is, do you want Attilo dead? Will you help us assassinate him?”
It was a question Trajan had endlessly racked his mind for the answer to. He had posed himself that same question night after night. Never had he actually thought that he might have to act on such musings… In his mind, this had been about garnering enough intelligence to prove the Emperor’s foul-play, to justify breaking away from the Imperium. He was certain his soldiers would follow. He had fought and toiled and bled beside them. They were loyal to him, not Attilo.
“Well?” Occulus demanded.
Trajan thought of what the Emperor had done to the Getae…the implications it had at home and abroad… The serrated mountains and frozen forests of the northern wilderness of Getae-rof were dark and feral, home some said, to a brooding pantheon of heathen Gods and malign forces. Some of this darkness, this menace, could be found in the barbaric natives, men and women not easily tamed or turned to civil pursuits. Animals born to raid and wage war, ferocious in battle and cruel in victory. Rumours spoke of Getae warriors collecting the severed fingers of their vanquished foes, wearing them around their necks, but Trajan had not seen it himself. Warchiefs arose and fell amongst them like crops. They were a loose confederation of tribes who spoke the same bestial tongue and honoured the same war-like ways rather than a cohesive nation. Their lack of knowledge and the hostile conditions in their rugged homeland ensured that they never settled in cities like reasonable folk. Subhuman monsters…or so the popular image claimed. Trajan refused to believe it. The Getae were a simple bunch, and he could indeed vouch for their war-like ways, but they were not the mindless, blood-hungry beasts that Imperial propaganda professed. He knew better. He recalled the way their leaders learned to converse in his language during the Troll war. He watched them care for their own and honour their vows. They were simply different. Vastly different. Was that reason enough to condone their genocide? No. It couldn’t be. The Imperials were better than this.
He made his decision.
“I will help you kill the Emperor.”
“Excellent!” The senator clapped his hands with glee. The sound reverberated around the tower.
That’s when Trajan felt a sharp, stabbing pain in his back…hot, sticky blood oozed down his spine. Crying out in pain, he whirled, grabbing frantically at his unseen assailant! He came face to face with Sertorius. His closest friend. His ally. His brother from a different mother… and he stopped thrashing and went limp. He looked the man in the eyes, then down at the bloody knife trembling in his hand.
“Please forgive me,” Sertorius mouthed, then plunged the knife into Trajan’s gut!
He had been betrayed. The shock was sharper than the blade. Disbelief overwhelmed him. Anger, Sorrow. Hurt like nothing he had ever experienced. They ripped Trajan to shreds. Tears spilled down his face, mingling with the blood pattering on the rotten floorboards. His blood. The colour of truth.
“Why?” He gasped.
He couldn’t find the resolve to resist, to fight back. Sertorius stabbed him again, and he yelled in agony, falling to one knee, grasping the leg of the man he had loved as a brother… His vision began to swim. He felt the very life in his veins draining out around his feet. And that is when in horror he realised…This is it. The end. He would never see his wife or daughter again.
“Guards!” Occulus roared. “Arrest this man!”
Boots clanked on the floor above.
Sertorius leaned in close. “I won’t let them crucify you, brother,” he whispered in his ear. “Go in peace to the Gods.”
Then, sobbing, Sertorius stabbed Trajan one last time.