If you’ve found this page, you’ve earned a sneak peek at The Upsilon Knot!
Aedes Genii Augusti
They woke the young lieutenant at midnight, and handed him a parchment scroll with a message from the Emperor himself. Dominic Soderini came alert immediately, as a legionary is trained to do. He dressed quickly, glad that for once he’d polished his boots before lights out instead of waiting until morning. He brushed his hair, buckled on his sword and followed the corporal down to the barracks gate.
Two members of the Praetorian Guard stood waiting to escort him. Saluting smartly, he moved into place between them. As they crossed the Tevere, he noticed the moon shining like a pearl on the skin of the river. Nothing was more beautiful than Roma on a moonlit night.
The Guards moved more rapidly than he would have thought possible for such massive creatures; he was hard-pressed to match their pace. They marched past the Piazza Navona, oblivious to the glow of the moon-kissed fountains. They passed the ancient Pantheon, so quietly glorious that Baron Haussmann had bowed his head over his plans, rubbed out his pencil marks and let it be—as he had left little else in the nearly thirty years since Augustus had inherited the throne from his father, the Great Napoleon, the uniter of Italy.
To Dominic’s surprise, the guards walked right past the Palazzo and turned in the direction of Santa Maria Maggiore.
“Where are we going?” His query was clearly the result of the case of nerves he was pretending not to suffer. He knew very well the trecika couldn’t answer. Those forbidding lumps of clay that guarded the great Caesar Augustus II had no power of speech. It made them that much more intimidating. He wondered if they really did house demons, or if that was only a tale to frighten children. His grandfather had certainly used it as such, but his grandfather, until he had grown too old and ill to do so, had served Caesar and knew many secrets.
They continued to march along in silence, save for the ring of his boots and mineral thud of their feet against the paving stones of one of Haussmann’s grand avenues. After a few minutes as long as an hour, they turned onto an unfamiliar street that led to a narrow alley. Dominic could smell the age of the buildings as they brushed by. He knew he was near some of the many ruins of the First Empire, but none with which he was familiar. Another turn; the moon disappeared and the cobbles beneath his feet slanted downhill. They were going beneath the street. Had he had not been a brave lieutenant in the Roman Imperial Army, he might have panicked.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness of the cryptoporticus. A faint glimmer seemed to pull him forward, making him eager to reach whatever destination lay in store. He drew ahead of his escorts, never noticing that they stopped within the archway, their bodies plugging the gap between the two-thousand-year-old stones.
The archway opened into an anteroom of sorts, lit by the wicks of a few brass bowls of oil that limned a path to another room. Dominic inhaled the damp, earthy air. He passed under the portico into a large, long room. The light was stronger there, but no less antique in source—pools of amber spreading from more of the rude lamps and a few branched candelabra. Dark doorways, or perhaps they were alcoves, loomed to either side; sometimes the lights threw menacing shadows from the shapes they contained. The near darkness smelled sweetly of beeswax and some unfamiliar resin, not the incense Dominic knew from Church but somehow like it.
The strongest light came from the far end of this hall, where a wheel-shaped chandelier dangled by a brass chain from the vaulted ceiling. Dominic moved toward it, as a weary swimmer makes for a ribbon of shore. On the other side of its glow, his eyes could just make out a shadow in the shape of an inverted pyramid. It reminded him of the seats the Baron’s workers were restoring to the mighty Colosseum. When at last he could see the seated spectators, he nearly smiled at having reached such a fine conclusion; this was some sort of auditorium then, something familiar.
A white-robed man rose stiffly from the center of the stands, a very old man with an unmistakable brow.
“Hail Caesar!” Dominic trumpeted. He gave his smartest salute and hoped his boots hadn’t become too scuffed on the long walk over.
Caesar Augustus II nodded briefly, then brought his staff down sharply on the stone. A blue-hooded figure scampered from the shadows with a round cup which was offered to Dominic.
“Drink from the situla, boy!” commanded Caesar, and Dominic drank. The liquid was thick and strangely sweet, like the must of rotting fruit. It tasted also of the metal of the vessel, which a spark from the chandelier revealed to be mellow gold. As the bearer removed the cup, Dominic saw a red burst on the side; it might have been a ruby, or perhaps it was merely the reflection of a flame.
There was a humming sound in the air, voices chanting something Dominic couldn’t understand. There was some kind of zither and a reed or flute, the kind of music that made his teeth buzz. It was also making his head spin, which surprised him.
“Sit, boy!” commanded Caesar. Feeling a chair placed behind him, Dominic sank into it just before his knees would have given way.
A woman stepped into the open space between the stands and began to sing strange words in a high nasal drone. Her bare feet rubbing against the mosaic floor, she crossed to where Dominic sat and began to dance. Bangles chimed on her bare ankles, and on her thin bloodless arms that writhed like snakes in the air above her veiled face. As she twisted and spun, her long yellow hair flew wildly, revealing the shocking whiteness of naked flesh. Old naked flesh: slack breasts and buttocks, a belly like a speckled mushroom and thighs that brought to mind a boy years ago at school, who had drowned and had been pulled from the river by a farmer’s pitchfork. It should have been horrible, but somehow Dominic couldn’t tear his eyes away from her gyrations.
The voice of Caesar, aged but still powerful, poured over him, invoking his gods. “Henu Nun and Naunet, of the Waters that flowed Before Time,” Caesar called. “Dua All Infinite Heh and Hehet. Suash, the Invisible Power. Suash Amon and Amaunet. Kek and Keket of the darkness, Ter. Djewi Ogdoad!”
Dominic’s eyelids fluttered. His body felt heavy and, as he noticed more of the trecika guards, the amphoraeka, in the shadows, he wondered if this was what it might feel like to be encased in a shell of clay. That was Dominic’s last conscious thought.
Words were chanted that, even if he’d heard, he would not have understood. A cymbal was struck and the blue-robed priest used a strange bronze knife to cut away the uniform of which he had been so proud. Two youths carried a large ceramic jar to the chair. They were naked except for thin linen squares held by a thong around the waist. They poured the herb-infused water over Dominic’s body, washing him, then smashed the vessel. The naked priestess danced around the boy’s chair. An acolyte brought her an alabaster bowl and she anointed the spot between his eyes with pungent oil. His mouth was prised open and a white feather tucked inside.
At a signal from Caesar Augustus, one of the Praetorian Guard lifted a very old man from the invalid’s chair in which he had been sitting, just beyond the spill of candlelight. The clay giant grasped the old man under his arms and held him like a baby; it might have almost seemed tender, had there been any present with the eyes to note it. The priestess anointed the ancient as she had the boy. He opened his mouth and she placed a scarab of lapis lazuli on his tongue. Augustus and the man, both old, locked eyes, the weary with the powerful. A beatific ferocity shone from the Emperor’s face as he pronounced the final formula.
Dangling from the Trecika’s arms, the old man’s body spasmed and shook. With a final mighty arch, something seemed to break free of it, and the body crumpled like an empty stocking. At the same moment, the young man appeared to be thrown from the chair. He gasped, like an infant pulled from his mother’s womb. His eyes, glazed opaque a moment before, sparkled with life. He stared, incredulous, at the empty husk held by the creature of clay. “Hail Caesar!” he whispered, and fell to his knees at the Emperor’s feet.
“Who is this?” Augustus looked deep into the boy’s eyes.
“Soderini, Caesar,” said the boy in an awed but oddly triumphant whisper. “Omberto Soderini!”
An equally triumphant smile spread across Augustus’ face. “Omberto Soderini. Giulia!”
The priestess threw her arms around the Emperor. “Success, Patre! At last! After all those failures!”
“The Piscapetti translation,” Augustus mused. “He was correct about the variant; an ‘heir of the blood.’ So it must be a direct descendant. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to dispose of Piscapetti; he might have had further uses.” Abruptly exhausted, but never taking his eyes off Soderini, Augustus resumed his seat. “Omberto!” he said.
“Yes Caesar?” Soderini lifted his head cautiously. When he saw the Emperor signal, he too returned to his chair.
“What does it feel like?” Augustus asked in a friendly voice.
“Perfect,” Soderini said, his astonishment clear in his voice. “I feel as young as my grandson. I am as young as he,” he corrected.
“Is he there, Omberto?” The tone remained conversational.
Soderini’s face furrowed in silent concentration. He seemed to be searching for something deep inside. Finally he gave a somewhat heavy sigh. “No, Caesar. He’s gone. The body is only mine.” Raising a finger to wipe his eye, he stared in surprise at the tear it found. “My grandson…I suppose the boy is dead.”
“I’m sorry, Omberto,” Augustus said sadly, flicking his hand in the air above his right ear. Another of the Guard, who had been primed for this gesture, moved from the shadows to just behind the chair. “I know you’d hoped to share his body, but we always knew it wasn’t certain.”
Soderini nodded sadly. “He was a good boy,” he said. “Loyal to his Emperor and to his family. He would have been proud to know he gave his life for both.”
The strong arms of the amphoraka reached around Soderini and crushed him, a cat’s jaw crushing a hummingbird. “As would have you, Omberto,” Caesar pronounced. “As would have you.”
The clay giant stood unmoving, the broken body dangling from his arms. Augustus ignored it and reached a hand to his shoulder, where his daughter’s hand still rested. “I am spent, Giulia,” he confided. “As much as if I’d led a legion into France.”
“You have won a great victory, Patre. Napoleon himself never won anything so great.” She moved around to face him. Her eyes glittered with excitement. “How soon do we prepare the boy?”
He stroked her fondly. “You are so impetuous, just like your mother. It will be soon enough. The moment is not yet ripe.”
“But what we’ve seen here tonight…you must proceed!”
“We know what we have seen,” he admonished, “but there is no telling what the process might disrupt in the body.” The weakness in Caesar’s left arm was becoming familiar. He disregarded it and found the leverage to push himself up from his seat. He allowed Giulia to take his weight on her shoulder and lead him down the stone steps. His bent foot throbbed, as it always had when he was fatigued. “Therefore,” he grunted, “before we proceed, we must secure the bloodline to the next generation. Waiting is no longer acceptable. Gusto must be mated now.”
“There would be no waiting if you would marry him to the young Duchess of Alba.”
“Never!” His pinch would leave a red welt on her skin for days. “Everything I have ever dreamed of is finally within my grasp and you would have me settle for mere breeding stock? You disappoint me, Giulia.”
“But Patre, we have made every effort—”
“There is always another way. We must find it. Rome will be complete again. First Britannia and then Gaul. We will have the English princess!”
Giulia bowed her head kissed his hand. “As you say, Patre. May you live forever.”
He smiled. “I may indeed,” he said, and pulling his daughter close, he lifted her chin and kissed her firmly on the mouth.