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Semper Romanus

By Christopher Jones

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The barbarians are still camped out there. I can see their fires from my room, though it sits away back in the middle of the city, where my father’s house rises above the wall. The stink of their campfire smoke blows off the hills and across Saguntum every day or so, as if we could forget that Hannibal is there, watching us as we watch him. Almost a year now he’s been out there, and yesterday I heard someone say that if he broke in and killed us all it would be a relief. I don’t want to agree.

There’s a knock at my door. I don’t speak, since I’m supposed to be sleeping. But an urgent voice cries, “Lucinda, wake up. You must come right away.”

I’m forced to reply, a last-ditch attempt to be left to my contemplations. “What’s so urgent? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Your father is dying. Hurry, he doesn’t have long,” Andus says—it has to be Andus, my father’s chamberlain—and his sandals go slapping down the hall. My father is the Mayor of Saguntum, the last brick in the wall of the Roman defense. If he falls, nothing will prevent Hannibal from sacking the town. But he shouldn’t be falling. He’s young, and in perfect health. The timing is sinister. I can only hope Andus is wrong.

My sandals lie at the foot of my bed and they are on my feet without my having to light a taper. I spent enough time in rotting tents and mud up to my knees to know how to get dressed in the dark. Down the hall I speed, with the footfalls of Andus ahead of me. Most of the torches are out. It must be very early in the morning, then, between the meridian of night and the dawning.

My father’s rooms are down the short corridor to the left, and I plunge through the curtain drawn over the door into the madness of Moloch’s Demesne. Vomit laced with blood stains the walls and the flooring, the bedding--much thicker than my own--and the front of my father’s bedtunic. Holding him down with effort are two of his bodyguards, and at first I believe them to be assaulting him, but this could never be so. My father’s body shivers and shakes and spasms, and they are merely attempting to keep him from hurting himself. His eyes are white. He stares, and sees nothing.

“I will summon Balgus,” Andus says, and rushes out.

“Help him!” I shout to the doctor, but there are three in the room already--all we have--and they wring their hands and start forward, only to rear back when a new fit comes upon the Mayor. Shouting and crying out. His chambermaid makes the sign of the evil eye. Father gives a great cry, as of a wild boar spitted on a shaft of ash, and then he is still.

I do not need the doctors to pronounce him dead. But I do need to know why my brother is not here.

Moments later, as if summoned by Father’s cry, Balgus bursts into the room, skids to a stop before the bed, and wails almost as loud as Father had done. He throws himself toward Father’s body, and is caught by the bodyguards. I watch their muscles ripple very slightly under their oiled bronze skins, and I can see that they are having no difficulty at all in holding him. Balgus is large, and mighty on the field, and if he were serious about prostrating himself upon the deathbed of his father, he would surely be able to win through the guards to do so.

Therefore this is show. Therefore he has arrived on schedule, and not late, as he would have us believe. Therefore I put my back against the stone on the far side of the room, and my hand on the hilt of my short blade, hidden under the folds of my tunic.

Balgus weeps for a while, and turns to us, his face a mask of grief. “Why?” he cries, like a bird at sunset. “What killed him?”

One of the doctors begins to speak. “He was like this when we found him. It is very like anoth--”

Whatever he was going to say is lost in the gurgle of his severed throat, as Balgus produces a dagger from beneath his leather gambeson and slashes through his neck. The other two doctors pale and edge toward the door. Balgus points his dagger at them and commands the guards. “Seize them. Let them speak to no one. Their tongues shall be cut from their mouths if they say one word of what they have seen this night.”

The doctors fall to their knees, hands clasped, begging Balgus to have mercy on them, that they have done all they could, that no one could have saved the Mayor, that he was struck down by the gods, that they will serve Balgus well if he will but save them alive.

They are not bad men, nor unskilled, and there is death enough in the town and on the plain outside, the gods know, so I have some faith that Balgus’s bloodlust will be slaked in the death of the one doctor who dared to speak. And who was on the point of saying what he believed Father’s death to be. I would have liked to hear the rest of that speech.

“Away with them. Throw them in the labyrinth,” Balgus says. The guards lift the emaciated doctors by their armpits as if they were straw and depart with them. The doctors’ cries echo down the hallway. In a few heartbeats, the whole town will know what has happened. And I have no doubt Balgus wishes that to be so.

Left with him now are just the two of us, the chambermaid, whose light shift conceals little of her substantial charms, and I. She cannot be armed--there is obviously no hiding place for a weapon--but I am. Will Balgus know? Will it matter if he does?

Balgus bends to the chambermaid, still in his manufactured rage, and grabs her by the tarblack hair braided down her back. He throws her on the bed. She is brave enough, I’ll allow that--she cries out only when she sees that she is lying across Father, and then only once. Her eyes are truly wet. Perhaps she thought she loved him.

Weeping has not made the girl less lovely, and Balgus appraises her as he would a foaled horse. “Did you have something to do with this?” he says.
“No, my lord,” says the girl, and though her face is drawn and white, her voice is steady. Lying on a bed she knows her power.

“Make your oblations,” he says. “Purify yourself. It may be that the gods will forgive you.” To me, it is clear that they will, and restore her to her place as the Mayor’s chambermaid. Rather quickly, I would bet.

She rolls to the right, and--gods stare in wonder--she kisses the vomit-stained mouth of our father. Once, lightly. Her front is mucked with his viscera, but she makes no move to wipe it. Frankly staring at Balgus, she rises from the bed, and strides from the room. His eyes never leave her, and linger on the curtain long after she has passed through it.

On the wall are four torches--one on either side of the bed, one on the wall to my left, and one next to the door. My place is in shadow, but a blind man could still see me standing just three paces from the bed, in the crevice next to the hearth and the now-dead fire. Balgus gives no sign that he knows I am there, but bends to the body and begins to clean it with a corner of bedsheet.

His back, hunched over Father, is a tempting target. I could get across the room like a wraith, and more than one man has felt the sting of the wasp in my belt. But he knows I am there, and more than likely expects this from me. Then he kills me, and he is supreme.

But he could do that anyway, could he not? He can cross the room as quickly as I can. I am dangerous, in my way, but he is a fell warrior and much larger than I. The tussle would be short, and I would be falling to my death from the half-shuttered window, my own dagger in my breast. “I could not prevent her from acting in her grief,” he would say.

And there is the barest possibility that Balgus did not have anything to do with Father’s death, too. There is the same possibility that Hannibal will suddenly convert to the worship of Zeus Almighty. Neither fills me with hope.

But I cannot know that for sure. I breathe in and out, and Balgus ignores me.

Gradually my muscles relax enough for me to realize that the pain in my chest is not fear, but sadness. Father. He was a good man, and true; a friend to Rome and to the city. Moreover, I believe he loved me, after a fashion, and his hearty laugh and endless optimism made my life brighter than it has any right to be. I will not sit with him at a fire again, not in this life. He will not warm my cup and hand it to me with a twinkle in his eye. He will never toss my children in the air and tell them stories of their mother’s wilder days.

He deserved a better death, and my tears begin to fall because he did not get it.

Was Balgus waiting for this?

“Lucinda, this must be Hannibal’s work. That doctor. I’ve seen him eyeing the Carthaginian troops from the top of the wall. He may have been sending signals.”

He says all this without turning to me. His hands are sure and steady, dipping in the bowl of water on the floor at Father’s bedside, wiping another bit of filth from Father’s face. His back is open, presented to me as an offering. I trust you, it says. It is meant to reassure, and against my will it does so.

“This doctor?” I say, rocking back off the wall and kicking the cooling foot of the luckless man lying on the floor.

“That one. The others are probably useless, but they aren’t necessarily corrupt.”

“I wanted to hear what he had to say.”

“I didn’t. Nothing could come from that mouth but lies. If you search him, no doubt you’ll find African gold in his pouch.”

No doubt. But I wouldn’t be searching him. I might be reassured by Balgus’ quiet tone and reverent manner, but I wouldn’t be putting my back to him any time soon.

I did, though, turn enough to look through the crack in the shutters toward the southern fields, where Hannibal’s tent lay. I could just make out the twinkle of fires, like stars dotting the plain and distant hills. So many. How could Hannibal feed them all?

“You’ll be Mayor, then, come morning,” I say.

He stops wiping Father for a moment, as if this startles him. “I suppose so,” he says, and resumes his work. As if he didn’t think on it until just now.

“We have no quarrel, you and I,” I say.

Now he turns and looks at me, sitting on the bed next to Father’s corpse. “None that I know of,” he says, eyes full of innocence. “And I hope we never will have. Governing is very difficult, and these are the darkest of times. Having you beside me would give the people great confidence.”

“They will support you, you think?”

He nods gravely. “They will.” His fist clenches, relaxes. “I believe they will. I will need them to, if we are to survive.”

Balgus stands and draws a fresh tunic from the cabinet against the wall. “Will you help me?” he says to me, head indicating Father’s body.

I am not expecting this. It is a gesture of faith and genuine concern for me and for Father that I thought Balgus incapable of.

“I...certainly, if it will not offend the gods.”

“It will not. You are his daughter.”

“But no priestess.”

“As I am no priest. Come, we are brother and sister, and this is the last we will have of our father, before they bear him away and send him to the Fields.”

I relent, and cross to the other side of the bed. Balgus raises Father’s torso enough for me to slip the ruined bedtunic from his body. I am struck again by his youthfulness, his vitality. Great muscles lie beneath his robe. But his skin is mottled, blotched, as if he has been beaten.

This is a strange illness, if it is one.
I give nothing away, keeping my face low and toward Father’s body. He has no loincloth--undoubtedly it would have proved inconvenient in dealing with the chambermaid--and I wish Balgus to believe I am ashamed.

Which is true, in part. I am ashamed, but not of my father’s nakedness. Men look much alike, shorn of their feathers. I am no stranger to it. No, I am ashamed of myself. I could have been more vigilant. More watchful. If I had, Father might not be lying here.

“Help me roll him on his side,” Balgus says, and I do, and he finishes cleaning Father’s body. Most of the filth was caught by the old bedtunic. The fresh one slides on him, and he lies again on his back. I close his mouth, and Balgus his eyes. We stand for a moment on opposite sides of the bed, looking down at the man who raised us.

“Now,” Balgus says, putting this behind him, “We have decisions to make.”

“We?” I say.

He nods. “I cannot make them alone. I know what must be done--all right-thinking Romans do--but I cannot persuade everyone by myself. Your voice carries weight here. People listen to you. We must convince them together.”

“Convince them? Of what?”

Balgus turns and steps over the body to gaze out the window. “He won’t be stopped, you know. He is invincible. No leader in ten generations has his cunning and understanding.”

“Then why has it taken a year for him to sit outside our walls and dither?” I say, leaning back against the wall, the bed still between us.

“He’s not dithering,” Balgus says. “He’s marshaling his forces. He’s gaining strength. He’s getting reinforcements from Carthage and stealing all the silver from our mines. He’s forging weapons. And he’s bringing in the gray beasts.”

The Carthaginians call them ele-fanto, the huge mounds of wrinkled gray flesh that terrify our horses and our men. We cannot fight them, that is true. But they are not stronger than the thick brown walls of our city. Unless they get inside, somehow.

Unless they are already inside, in disguise. My eyes bore into Balgus’ back. My fingers tug the strap from my short blade, loosening it in its sheath. But I dare not draw it. Nor do I have cause. Not yet.

“We can outlast them. Rome will come.”

“No,” he says, with finality. He turns, and draws from his leathern belt a piece of parchment. The seal is broken. He tosses it on the bed, and indicates it with a bob of his head. “This came yesterday from Rome herself. She will not come. She leaves it to us.”

I cannot believe it. I take up the parchment and unroll it. The words swim before my eyes, but they are, in the end, as he says. Rome cannot come to our aid. Rather, she will not. And long live the Eternal City and her Republic, regardless. She believes us to be strong enough to repel the invaders, then we will be as strong as her belief.

“It changes nothing,” I say.

“It changes everything!” Balgus shouts. “Do you not see? Do you not understand? We have nothing here to defend ourselves with. Our food is running out. Our men are tired and hungry and fatigued to the point of madness. There is nothing left for us but pitched battle or starvation and death. Which do you think we should choose?”

“Either is preferable to surrender to that madman.”

He stares at me. “Do you really believe that? That we should be reduced to dining on one another before we should seek terms? Hannibal would be generous. He needs all his force for an assault on the Iberian province, and then to Cisalpine Gaul.”

“And on to Rome,” I say.

“Never. It is six hundred miles. No army can march that far, against constant harassment from the legions. And then the Alps? Who can cross them under arms? This is no Caesar. He will fall long before then, and we will be free once more. If we take his terms, we will live.”

“You know his terms?”

A look flashes across Balgus’ face. “I can guess them. Would you rather die choking on your tongue?”

I spit on the floor. “We are Romans. It will be as the gods will. Surrender is to turn our backs on them.”

“You are insane. You’re worse than Father.”

“That’s a compliment.”

“It’s a death sentence,” he says, and cat-quick he’s across the bed and his iron grip wraps around my arm. My right arm, underneath which lies my blade. I cannot reach it. I cannot resist him--he is far stronger than I thought, especially in his rage.

He marches me around the resting place of the dead and to the low table at Father’s side. On it, on a plate of pewter, hidden from me until now, sit two cookies, one half-eaten, the other whole. I search Balgus’ face. He knows what this means. Therefore I also know.

Without releasing me, he plucks a cookie from the plate and holds it in front of my face. “You are in such a rush to die, sister dear, and you love Father so much. If you hurry, you can join him.”

He stamps on my foot and I feel something crack. My mouth opens, just a knuckle, though I am biting back a scream. But he is fast, and crushes the cookie between my lips. Is that the tang of arsenic against the durum wheat and the glaze of honey? I will not swallow. He cannot force me.

But I am wrong. He can.

He pinches my nose, wrapping both arms around me and crushing the breath from my lungs. His palm prevents me from spitting the cookie, and I cannot breathe unless I clear my mouth. I twist, kicking out with my feet, but he raises me from the floor. The edges of my vision flutter, then turn black. I cannot breathe. My lungs heave.

And I swallow. My body betrays me. He feels the larynx move, and his hand allows a ragged breath past his sweaty palm.

He drops me to the floor.

“I regret,” he says, stepping over the supine doctor, stiffening in the morning air, “that the doctors are confined in the labyrinths below, and are unable to attend you. You will be glad that suicide is a noble Roman death, though, and I will see you buried next to Father with full honors. Perhaps the gods will be glad to see you.”

“They’ll see you soon enough,” I say, coughing raggedly.

“Not very soon, I don’t think,” Balgus says, and steps to the door, leaving me for dead.

It is only now, when I have nothing to lose, that I find the strength and the Roman courage I should have had in the beginning. I spring to my feet and launch myself at his back, drawing my short blade and plunging it with both hands into his neck.

He rears back, and the strength goes from his legs. Gods guiding my hand, I have severed his spine. He pitches forward face-first through the curtain and lies still without so much as a jerk.

For a moment, I stand at the foot of the bed, surrounded by death. Surely Mania, goddess of violent death, will come for me now--an orphan, a fratricide. But still--always--a Roman. Never mind that Hannibal will slaughter us all, treaty or no. We will not die with our backs to our gods, but facing them in the light of the day. I take the parchment from the bed and toss it on the hearth. With the wall-torch I light it. It burns, the smoke ascending. To thee, Jupiter, I commend this offering. See it, and be merciful to me. I come quickly.

Then I put the torch back, and stand and wait. Any moment now, the spasms will begin. I would prefer to meet them on my feet.

Nothing happens.

The torches gutter, and their smoke fills the room. One by one they go out. Bare, sere light seeps through the window, the herald of the coming day. My foot swells in my sandal, but I can stand the pain.
No other pain comes. My gut does not roil. My limbs remain loose, relaxed, waiting.

From the hallway, a cry. The curtain parts, and Andus creeps through the doorway, eyes wide in the paltry light. He sees me and sucks in breath. “Lucinda,” he says, and sees Balgus and the doctor on the floor, and Father on the bed. “What--”

“Do not speak,” I say. “Come here, and do as I tell you.”

Obediently, he comes into the room and stands before me. I go to the low table and take the cookie from the plate. I put it in my palm and stretch it out before me. “Take this, and eat it,” I say.

He is confused, wondering, eyes red from crying and lack of sleep. But he takes the cookie and raises it to his mouth.

“Stop!” I say, before he can eat. “Do not bite down. Smell it, and tell me what odor it has.”

He inhales, and coughs. “It smells of...arsenic, my lady!” His eyes are wide in alarm. “The Mayor was poisoned, then!”

“No,” I say, taking the cookie back from him. “But he was meant to be.”

I pass the cookie under my own nose, and there is the unmistakable smell of arsenic, bitter and deadly, under the scent of honey. Slight, but definite. The other cookie had no such smell, and I had it in my mouth long enough to know. Andus’ willingness to eat the cookie means he knew of no plot. I am grateful. I have liked Andus, and did not wish to add more death to my tally today.

I sigh, and turn to Father, purple and blotched, but peaceful, on the bed. I make the sign to him, speeding him on his way. Once before I have seen this thing, where a man loses all his governance and strikes out in madness at all around him. The doctors said his head burst. Perhaps that is what has happened here. What is sure is that he should have been poisoned, and would have been, whether by the first bite, or the third, it would be the same. The evidence then destroyed, the murderers unpunished. And the town betrayed.

But the gods ordain better than that, for such a man as Father. He is avenged of that which was purposed. That the parricide was wrong, inept, and lucky, has no relevance. Let those below decide betwixt him and me, when the time comes.

Meanwhile, Andus stands wringing his hands in the false light, searching my face in wonder and terror and, yes, an unmistakable curiosity. At least I can satisfy that, if nothing else.

“Close the door,” I say. “We have much to discuss before the dawn.”

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About Christopher Jones

Christopher JH Jones (alias Mr. C and Cj Lehi), after decades without success, quit writing in 2013. After trying repeatedly to grow up—without discernible success—he repented, and has gone on to publish several books in multiple genres. He is known for his business book, From Poop Into Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers, and other nonfiction titles; for his true-crime historical thriller series Trinity Flynn; and for Twelve Upon a Time, his collection of original fairy tales. A prolific writer of short fiction as well, Cj has published two short-story collections and been featured in six anthologies.

His latest labor of love is founding Drabatic Press. We’re all still waiting to see how that turns out.

Cj resides in Lehi, UT, with his wife Jeanette, their eight children, three children-in-law, one murderous cat, and a stray hummingbird. He loves Twitter, (@cjhjones), Instagram (@iamchrisjones) and visitors to his website (iamchrisjones.com).

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