MAGNUS: Foreign Shores, Chapter 1

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CAPITULUM I 

A distant scream split the darkness. He bolted upright in bed and threw the covers from himself. He reached for the knife on a nearby table and frantically searched the bed for his wife. He lifted a trembling hand to the heart pounding furiously in his chest and remembered.

He was alone.

A cold sweat broke out across his body as the single window in the bedroom claimed his attention. It mouthed a silent scream in the night, appeared to him like a mouth frozen in nightmarish terror. Its dull blackness was the only beacon in the pitch dark room.

His eyes began to slowly adjust to the darkness; it was swallowing him alive. The blade brushed against his leg and nicked him; he welcomed the pain, its sting a welcome reminder that he was indeed alive. The window called to him again, this time as a gentle breeze that touched his sweat-covered skin. His feet led him to the open frame. His heart raced. Rome was still, lifeless, and uncaring.

“Sir?” a voice called beyond his door, followed by two short, sharp knocks. “Is everything alright?”

My father lifted his free hand to his head, rubbing sleep and confusion from his thoughts. He placed the knife on the window ledge and gave his reply. “I’m okay, Philip. Go back to sleep.” After what seemed like an eternity in the stillness of the night, he heard the light footfall retreat down the outer pathway and away from his room.

Another knock sounded half a minute later, this one much more timid than the first. “I said I’m fine, Philip. You can go to sleep.”

“It’s me, pater,” I called from the opposite side of the doorway. My hand, still resting upon the smooth surface of the wooden door, fell forward as the latch sounded and the door was pulled open for me. The soft creak of wood sounded ominous in the stillness of the night.

“You should be sleeping, Sextus. What’s wrong?”

My eyes lifted from his feet, to his chest, and finally rested upon his neck just below his chin. He knelt before me and lifted my face, drawing my eyes into his own. Even in the darkness, I could see the fear in them. “Speak to me, son. Why did you wake?”

“You woke me, pater. I…I just wanted to make sure you were safe.”

“Look.” He laughed for a moment and ushered me into the dark room. “Can you see? There’s nothing here and no one to fear, Sextus. The room is perfectly empty.”

I looked briefly at the disheveled bed and thought of my mother.

Mucia.

Father had divorced her the night of his last triumph. It was his forty-fifth birthday. There were no shouts that night, no tears, no questions of why. She had simply gathered her belongings and departed silently in the snow. My brother Gnaeus, sister Pompeia, and I would stay with him from that day forward. It was the price of her unfaithfulness to him.

“But I heard you scream, pater. What was wrong?”

He looked at me with a puzzled expression before turning his back on me. He crossed the room for the lonely knife, held it both hands before walking back toward me. “That came from outside, son. Probably a disagreement between two drunks.” His smile returned as he set the knife once again beside the bed. “And that is just one of many reasons why you should always live a life of moderation. Sobriety lends itself to fewer disagreements that end in violence outside of shady Roman taverns.”

I must have looked suspicious as he sat on the bed and drew me closer to his side. “Come here, son. What is it? Tell me what’s really bothering you. You can speak.”

I turned a small object between my fingers and refused to look him in the face. “It was you, pater. I heard you scream.” It was true. My room was next to his and that night wasn’t the first time my sleep had been disrupted and shattered by screams in the night.

His hand unconsciously ran itself through his hair and fell to his cheek, a light beard already starting to form around his face. “Perhaps you’re right. Maybe it was just a dream.” He looked away from me but still held me close. “Do you ever have nightmares?” he asked, for which I nodded in reply. “As much as I wish it weren’t so, we adults have them from time to time as well. But they are only dreams, not real life.”

“Still frightening, though.”

“Frightening?” he echoed. “Perhaps. But what do boys your age have to fear, Sextus?”

I clutched the object in my hand and stiffened. “There are ghosts. Sometimes krakens. Do they scare you too?”

He pulled me closer and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, his cold sweat mingling with my own. “Can I tell you a secret? A few years ago, I sailed from one end of Our Sea to the other. I literally sailed from the Pillars of Heracles in the west to far beyond Athens in the East. And do you know what? Never once did I see anything that resembled a kraken.”

“And ghosts?”

“Well…” he trailed off as his hand squeezed my shoulder a bit too tightly for my own comfort. “Sometimes I dream about the past; I had many friends who never returned home with me. And you know what else? Sometimes I dream about your grandfather too.”

“And Mother?”

He didn’t answer that one. “In your life you will lose many people that you love, my son. When that time comes, you may find it easier to distance yourself from friends, family, and loved ones. You may even convince yourself the distance is for your own protection. But here is my advice to you. Are you listening?” Of course I was. He was my father, the great conqueror of three continents and an ocean. “Keep them close. For there is nothing greater than friends and family, Sextus. The world may turn it’s back on you, Rome may desert you, but loved ones are more valuable than all the treasure of Eastern kings combined.”

I nodded my understanding and accidentally dropped the object I held in my hands.

“What is that?” my father asked as he let me bend down to retrieve it from the floor.

“It’s the Hector you gave me. I…I wanted to give it to you.”

He took it in his own hand and studied it in the darkness, more with his fingers than his eyes. “But I brought this home especially for you. Your mother told me he was your favorite.”

“He is. He was a brave warrior, wasn’t he?”

My father agreed it was so. “You can search the world from past to present and seldom find a man as brave as Hector of Troy. But do you know I was this close to his homeland during my last campaign?”

I nodded. “Did you meet him, pater?”

Laughter filled the room at my childlike question. It was loud enough to bring a hurried cacophony of footsteps down the outer hallway once again. “It’s okay, Philip! Please, for the last time, go back to bed!” He turned his attention back to me and continued. “Hector died many, many years ago, Sextus. He died long before Rome was even an idea, much less a city.” He gave the wooden toy back to me, which I reluctantly grasped. “Anyway, I thought this was your favorite toy. Why would you want to give it to me?”

There was no doubt about it: it truly was my favorite possession. All these years later, I can truthfully say it still is. Still, I sat sheepishly beside him and wanted nothing more than to give it to my father, the greatest man I had known in my nearly eight years of life. “When I’m afraid…I hold him tight. Like this.” I gripped him between both hands and held the small figure to my face. “He helps me fight the krakens and the ghosts. He helps me to fall asleep.”

Father looked upon me, his youngest child, in love. He looked upon me with the respect a father reserves for his own children. It was so quiet I could hear his slow, steady breathing through his nose. He reached his large, calloused hand out to mine. It was no longer trembling as it was when I first arrived and it enveloped my own smaller one. It was the first time I had noticed that our hands looked the same. “Maybe he can stay with me tonight. Just this once.”

I turned it over to him without a sliver of hesitation and stood to my feet. “Goodnight, pater,” I said as I reached for the closed door that would lead me to the walkway and my own room beyond.

“Goodnight, my son,” I heard him whisper back.

***

Hector greeted me from the shelf above my bed the following night. I stared at the small wooden figurine, picked it up, and left the room in search of my father.

“He just stepped out,” Philip called from the front of the house. “He told me to see you off to bed, so off we go.”

I rubbed the toy and stared at the front door in the opposite end of the house. “But where is he?”

“Out. With friends. Now it’s time for bed.”

“Will he be safe?” I asked Father’s longtime slave-turned-loyal-freedman. Although he had been granted his freedom on the same night of my father’s last triumph, there was no way he would abandon him so easily. “When will he come home?”

Philip grabbed me behind the neck and firmly but gently led me back to my room. “Your father has spanned the sea and three continents, Sextus. Consuls, kings, pirates, and one-eyed lunatics were never a match for him.  He’s been in more battles than I care to remember, but one thing is certain: there is no safer place for him than Rome. Listen to me,” he said as I climbed into bed for the night. “If I was worried for his safety, I would have followed him out that door. You’re a smart boy; you know that’s the truth.”

I did. There was no one more faithful to my father than Philip. Still, I must confess that I clutched at my toy for what felt like hours until at last I fell asleep, unable to tame the siren’s unwelcome song of sleep.

Philip was correct: Father was indeed safe and with friends, albeit on the other side of Rome. It was a month into the year 60 and it was the first moment of peace his former legate Lucius Afranius had enjoyed since winning the consulship for the year. His victory came swiftly and easily, all due to Father’s constant public praise of the man in the closing months of the previous year.

“So there we were, recently arrived in Galatia, when old Lucullus starts putting his nose in places it didn’t belong. So what does Gnaeus here do?” the new consul addressed my father and another man in his sitting room. “He barges into the commander’s camp with his own lictors and kicks the man out of Galatia, sending him back to Rome with fifteen hundred of the laziest soldiers he could find!”

“Now, now, Lucius,” Father responded with a smile on his face, “I believe the official explanation is he was ‘escorted’ back to Rome. Details, my friend, details!”

The third man in the room was shaking his head at the telling of the story, clearly hearing the tale for the first time. “The man is an imbecile. The greatest day of my thirty-three years on earth was the day he divorced my sister. Gods, aside from being the second most incompetent man to strut about Rome, he also throws the most boring, deplorable parties you’d ever hope to be invited to. Being that man’s brother-in-law for another year would have been the death of me.”

My father glanced uncomfortably at his host, who smiled at the other guest. Both were amused with the man’s unexpected outburst. “Tell us how you really feel, Publius.”

Publius Claudius. Where does one begin in the tale of the man whose life story could fill an entire corner of Alexandria’s famed library? Hailing from one of Rome’s most illustrious patrician families, his dearest and closest friends in life were gossip, scandal, and – most famously – his sister Claudia. The two were inseparable; so inseparable, in fact, that Licinius Lucullus divorced her due to the rumors that reached him all the way in Galatia during his war against King Mithridates. She had reportedly cheated on her husband with not just any man, but her own brother. Although neither had ever publicly admitted to the act, neither had denied it either.

As if this wasn’t enough of a scandal, Claudius had also been found sneaking around Julius Caesar’s house in women’s attire during an attempt to bed Caesar’s wife in the middle of a female-only party. It was a good thing the master of the house was out that evening or blood would have surely been spilled. Although Claudius got away unscathed, Caesar put his foolish wife out on the street as soon as word of the tryst was revealed.

“How do I feel? I’ll tell you how I feel: the Senate – those corrupt and arrogant fools – are stoking the man’s ego, dressing him up in flattery, and cavorting him around Rome for one reason only.” He stopped there as he crossed his arms and looked my father up and down.

“You can’t be serious, Publius,” Afranius chided his guest, dismissing his non-stop rants as a mere squabble with his former brother-in-law. “You think the Senate is trying to resurrect the career of Licinius Lucullus as a slap in the face to Gnaeus here?”

“Oh, I don’t just think that; I know it.” Claudius waited for the new consul to finish shaking his head in disbelief before continuing. “How long have you been absent from Rome, Lucius? You may be consul of Rome but you’ve clearly forgotten how Roman politics work. On the one hand, you have the peoples’ hero of the East. On the other, you have the slighted commander so beloved by his fellow patricians in the Senate. What better man to disrupt Gnaeus’ life than the man he supplanted in the war against Mithridates?”

Father nodded as he looked to his friend and former legate. “To be honest, it’s already crossed my mind. It fits with how they’ve treated me in the past. Aside from that, I clearly remember Lucullus screaming over his shoulder how it wouldn’t be the last I’d hear from him as my lictors dragged him from his camp in Galatia. I think he’s right, Lucius.”

Afranius shrugged as he lifted a cup of wine to his lips. “Very well, then, let’s assume my betters,” he gestured to both men with a sarcastic flourish, “are correct. So how does one stamp out the plotting and scheming of Lucullus and his cantankerous patrician puppeteers?”

“It’s quite simple: make a show of yourself. It’s what the people want, after all.”

My father shook his head, amused with the man and his ideas, but playing along nonetheless. “If you seriously think I will follow the advice of a man accused of dressing in drag, you’re going to be highly disappointed, Publius.”

Claudius smiled something of a wicked smile as he acknowledged the words. “You’re right, of course. Not many men could get away with all I have these last few years. That’s not what I mean though,” he dismissed Father’s remarks with a wave of his hand. “You must show yourself in the Forum as often as possible. Bring your friends along. Bring me! Parade them all to the Campus Martius and flaunt the progress you’ve made on your new theater currently under construction. Let the people remember you, love you, and treasure you! Do this and all hope Lucullus has of a renewed career will be trampled underfoot!”

“And here I was thinking I would begin my retirement shortly,” Father sighed. “All I want is for the Senate to uphold the promise I gave my men when I dismissed them last fall. Let them retire in peace and settle in to their new lands. I can already see Lucullus doing all he can to stir that pot with the spoon given him by the Senate. They’ll try to take those lands away from my men just to spite me.”

“And that’s why retirement must wait, my Great friend,” Claudius spoke as he pounded a fist on his thigh. “If you stay indoors and let them walk all over you, they most assuredly will! First you and then your men. I can hear them now: ‘General, why didn’t you stand up for us? Where will my wife and children sleep, now that your fellow senators have stripped me of my land and home?'”

“That’s enough, Publius,” Afranius interjected as he saw the look of distress cross my father’s face. “Anyone who thinks Gnaeus’ men will blame him for anything doesn’t know the character of those men who served under him.”

“Perhaps,” Claudius answered with a grin, “or perhaps you’re underestimating the second biggest fool in Rome and your corrupt patrician brethren who pull his strings.” A slave entered the room and began clearing the table of empty plates and cups. Seeing it for what it was – a clear sign of the night’s closure – Claudius stood to his feet and drained what was left in his cup.

“That’s the second time you’ve referred to him as the ‘second biggest fool in Rome.’ I can’t help but ask who, in your opinion, is the first fool in Rome?” Afranius asked with an exasperated glance across the room at my father.

Claudius handed the empty cup to the slave and brushed both hands on his tunic with a chuckle. “Do you really need to ask?” Blank stares were his only answer. “I suppose I’ll forgive your cluelessness, seeing as how you were both absent for such a long period of time. It’s that long winded, self-righteous new man Marcus Cicero.” Father rolled his eyes and set his own empty cup on the tray of a passing slave. “You don’t believe me, I see. Blindness can be a deadly enemy, Gnaeus. So too can deafness.”

“Marcus is a lifelong friend of mine, Publius. I’ve known him nearly thirty years.”

“Friends can be the most blind and deaf of all, Gnaeus,” he said as he stepped toward the door. “And the most jealous ones too. Remove the scales from your eyes and the dung from your ears, and you just might reconsider who your true friends are. Goodnight, gentlemen.”

Afranius and Father sat in silence until they heard the front door close. As soon as it did, the consul spoke up: “Forgive me, Gnaeus. It was a mistake to invite him.”

My father shook his head and stood to his feet. “Never mind all that. But I am curious: how did you meet the man anyway?”

“He approached me after the last senatorial meeting. He is apparently a big fan of yours and wanted to meet you away from all the prying eyes.” The two men chuckled and ambled toward the outer hallway. “Pay him no mind, Gnaeus; especially the part about Cicero. It was Marcus who accused Claudius of insurrection while we were out East, and Lucullus was the one who brought charges of incest against him upon his return home. I thought he would be a spot of entertainment for us. Instead, he’s shown his true nature as nothing more than an unruly firebrand.”

They reached the front door and stepped into the quiet street. Father looked up and down the cold cobblestone path as his bodyguards joined him. “However outlandish he may be, he was right about two things: I must hold firm for our men and keep working on my theater. I’ll take everything else with a grain of salt.”

“Wise words, my friend,” Afranius said as the two men shook hands and said farewell for the night.

***

Later that spring, a knock on the front door startled me from some sort of game I was playing with my sister Pompeia. That was the first time I remember seeing him.

“Publius Claudius is here to see you, sir,” Philip spoke to the open door frame of my father’s study. “I let him into the garden. Should I show him in?”

Father dismissed him and exited the confines of the only peaceful room within the house. My siblings and I had taken over the rest. “Publius!” he called from the walkway. “What a surprise this is. You should have sent word ahead of your arrival.”

“I was in the area and decided to stop by unplanned. I hope you don’t mind.”

Father shook his head and crossed the distance between them. “I see you’ve met my two youngest children.”

“Yes, they’re quite charming,” he smiled as he watched me from a crouched position next to a small pond. “The older one is studying, I presume?”

My father nodded in reply and added, “Or as Little Gnaeus refers to it, ‘torture.’ Come this way Publius.”

As the two men departed the interior garden, I heard the visitor say, “I’ve always thought it takes a woman to make a house a home. How long have you been back in Rome? Last fall, if I’m correct?”

“September 29th, on my birthday.”

“And still no wife?” I heard as the door shut behind them.

Publius was shown to a sofa and Father sat at his desk facing him. “Well, it’s not for want of trying. I’ve since lost track of how many times I’ve made an appeal to Porcius Cato for one of his daughter’s hands in marriage. I’ve come to the conclusion that the man doesn’t take me seriously at all, but what’s new?”

“Cato?” Claudius asked with a look of complete distaste on his face. “Cato the Younger? As in Porcius ‘Rome’s Most Boring Man Ever’ Cato? The unflinching stoic?”

“That would be the one.”

His guest tutted and shook his head as he reclined himself on the sofa. “Gnaeus, I’m afraid you’ve been absent from Rome too much of your life to know who to seek favors from and who to turn your back upon. We really do need to work on your social skills and develop a friend list that has actual value.”

“But Cato is from a long line of famous Romans. I thought he was an ideal choice to align myself with.”

“Gnaeus,” Claudius leaned forward, looking my father straight in the eyes, “there is only one woman worth a grain of salt in that family of his: Servilia. And she’s already claimed by Julius Caesar himself – unofficially, of course, but taken nonetheless. He may be out west governing Hispania, but he is not a man to cross. I would know.”

Father smirked at the thought of marriage to Caesar’s longtime mistress. It was a match he had never even considered and would never give it a moment’s thought. “Don’t worry about Servilia. Perhaps you were too young to remember, but it was I who ordered Junius Brutus’ death. Servilia was his wife at the time. If she doesn’t hate me already, I’m sure her son Marcus Brutus already does.”

“Oh he does,” Claudius laughed as a knock on the door interrupted their conversation.

A slave entered the room after my father admitted him and spoke softly, “Sir, Marcus Cicero is at the door. Should I bring him in or instruct him to wait?”

The mood in the room quickly shifted as Claudius’ face turned a bright shade of red. “I will not share the same room with that man, Gnaeus. It’s him or me.”

After a brief consideration, my father informed the slave, “Tell him I’ll send for him later. I’m a bit preoccupied at the moment. And bring us some wine as soon as you’re done.”

He returned his attention to his current guest, who was staring at the wall with a sneer on his face. “As much as I hate Cato, I’d prefer his company any day over that man you call a friend.”

“Enlighten me, then, if you will. In all my life, I’ve rarely met a man as noble and honorable as Marcus.”

“Then you don’t know him as well as you think,” Claudius said. “I’m sure he’s told you all about his days as consul, correct?”

“He informed me by letters, yes.”

“I’m sure you didn’t know my role in that whole ‘conspiracy against Rome’ as he calls it, do you?”

Father fidgeted briefly with a stylus on his desk before setting it down again. “I know he accused you of assisting in the conspiracy. I also know that you defeated his charges in court.”

“But do you also know that I was his friend and colleague? Do you know that I helped him gather evidence against the true ‘conspirators’ as he called them? And that my conclusion was the whole thing was a farce?”

My father remained silent, prompting Claudius to continue. “I’m sure in all those letters he sent to you, he failed to mention how much of a bore his year as consul had become. Did he tell you how much that frightened him?” His question was met with silence. “Well, it did. Gods forbid that future generations would never know the name Marcus Cicero. He needed something devastating and monumental to happen so his dull year would be remembered forever in the annals of history.”

The slave returned to the study with a pitcher of wine and two cups, which were given to both men. Father set his upon the desk, not ready to unwind just yet. “Here is where I fail to follow you, Publius: the conspirators that Marcus named fled the city and stood with arms against Rome. Why would innocent men take such drastic measures?”

“What choice did they have? They had already been accused and condemned in the court of public opinion! If you ask me, they were brave to stand up against that tyrant you call a friend.”

“I don’t understand,” my father admitted as he lifted the cup from the desk and turned it in his hands. “Why would Marcus fail to tell me all these details himself? He’s always been open with me since we’ve been friends.”

“Gnaeus,” Claudius leaned forward on the sofa, his first cup of wine already empty and on the floor, “the last thing he wants is for you to know! I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news here, but the man despises you! His jealousy toward you is unbridled and dangerous if you ask me.”

“No,” Father shook his head. “Not Marcus.”

“Yes Marcus!” Claudius hissed with eyes blazing full of hatred. “The man will be your undoing if you let him, Gnaeus. He is one of them! No different than Cato, Lucullus, Piso, or anyone else who struts about the Forum with their fancy togas, wealthy friends, and each move made in consideration of their sacred path along the cursus honorum. And that, my friend, is the exact opposite of you and I. Am I wrong?”

Father sat in silence, the cup in his hands still untouched. He noticed it at last and took a sip of the wine pressed from one of his own vineyards in Picenum. If only he were there, far from Rome and politics, he swore he would have been truly happy. Alas, a man – no, a hero – like him, recently returned from years on the sea and the East, could not depart just yet. “Thank you for speaking your mind, Publius. I truly do appreciate it.”

Claudius stood to his feet and waited for my father to do the same. “It would be a travesty to see Rome’s greatest hero trod upon for the sake of another man’s dignitas. We cannot allow it, Gnaeus.” He held out his empty hand to my father. “Let me help.”

The two men left the study and crossed the walkway surrounding the garden. I looked up from the house I was building with a handful of sticks and saw them observing me. My father gazed upon me in pride, Claudius with fascination. “Do you know your father is a hero, young man?” he asked me.

“I do,” I answered, nothing more certain to me than those two words.

“You see?” he asked as he turned his attention back to my father. “Even a child knows how valuable you are to Rome. It’s time to forsake those blind fools in the Senate, Gnaeus, and give your time and devotion to the people who truly love you.”

“Thank you for stopping by, Publius,” was his only response as he directed his visitor to the front door. “Please stop in again when you have the chance.”

“I will,” he vowed as the door was closed to him.

I watched as he waited a moment or so too long in the vestibule, perhaps alone in his thoughts. His head snapped up, back to the present, and he turned to make a slow retreat to his study once again.

“Should I send for Cicero, sir?” the slave called out to him.

He paused where he was and the two of us caught each others’ glance. I dropped mine to the ground, focused once again on my building project.

“I think not,” I heard him say before the slow retreat of footsteps faded into nothingness and the door was pulled shut.

Haven’t read Books 1 and 2 yet? Get them here.

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