From the author: An excerpt from the novel of the same name--join the world of Edda-Earth, where magic and science coexist, and all the gods are real. Caesarion, the son of Caesar and Cleopatra, is god-born of both Rome and Egypt, and now that his father has died, must work to keep Rome on the path to greatness--in spite of the schemes of Octavian and others!
Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?
—Marcus Tullius Cicero
Iunius 30, 15 Ascensio Caesare
On this warm summer evening, fifteen years after Julius Caesar had been crowned in the Forum of Rome, the Empire held its breath. Rumor—fleeter of foot than Mercury—swept through the city, from patrician homes to plebeian ones, whispering that Gaius Julius Caesar had suffered some manner of fit. It had long been murmured that he was subject to the falling-sickness, perhaps contracted in tropical climes, or meted out as punishment by the gods for having dared to ascend so far. More troubling, however, were Rumor’s sly additions to her tale: that the seventy-year-old emperor could not rise, and that his foreign-born wife, Cleopatra, would not leave his side, whispering spells and incantations to keep him alive.
The freeborn muttered in the marketplaces; the Empress might be a curse on Rome. Their beloved Emperor had divorced his third wife, Calpurnia, after his coronation, and had extended to Cleopatra and the Hellene-Egyptian House of Ptolemy Roman citizenship for “services to the Empire.” Italians who had only recently been granted citizenship spat at those words; her services, in their opinion, were those of a harlot, and the rights that their grandfathers had died for in the Social War had been granted to her for what lay between her thighs.
Few in Rome understood that the bread distributed by the government—the Annona—came at such a low cost to the state solely because Egypt’s fertile fields provided their plenty at the whim of their queen.
In the last light of sunset, five cohorts of legionnaires marched along the Via Flaminia towards the gates of Rome, accompanying two young men on horseback. The dirt and dust on their uniforms suggested a long journey, conducted rapidly. The senior centurion and all the men on foot were hardened soldiers in their thirties, members of the Legio X Equestris—the first legion levied by Julius Caesar. The Equestris formed the backbone of Caesar’s Praetorian Guard, the personal protectors accorded to many a general over the centuries. Hence the distinctive white crests on the helmets of their officers.
Of the pair on horseback, the elder, who wore the long white crest of a tribune of the Tenth Legion, didn’t look to have escaped his adolescent years; the younger, who wore no uniform, but rather just a tunic and cloak suitable for riding, looked barely old enough to have received his toga virilis. “Malleolus! Fall the men out,” the older of the pair called to the centurion, reining in. “Let them eat and bathe and see their families. But be at my father’s villa outside of Rome first thing in the morning.”
The centurion thumped his breastplate in acknowledgement, and the weary legionnaires gave a desultory cheer. But the centurion let the rest of his men file past, and then caught the young officer’s reins before he could thump a heel into his horse’s flanks. “I’ll be going with you, dominus?” Malleolus asked. It wasn’t quite a question.
The corners of the young man’s mouth kinked upwards slightly. “This is Rome.”
“Yes, my lord.” Solemn acknowledgement. “And fifteen years ago, seven men tried to murder your father. On the sacred soil of Rome.”
The young man put a hand on his shoulder, imperceptible through the armor. “I’m harder to kill than my father, Malleolus. Though I thank you for your care.” In the last rays of sunset, his eyes gleamed an unnatural shade under the shadows cast by his helm—the color of spilled blood. For Ptolemy XV Julius Caesarion Philopator Philomator—generally called Caesarion—was god-born.
His mother, Cleopatra, who had made her son co-ruler of Egypt with herself when he was no more than three, claimed that the blood of Isis and Osiris ran in her veins. His father had once minted coins that reminded the people of Rome that his house claimed descent from Venus. And none could deny that Mars had favored Caesar on the battlefield as well. Yet neither of his parents had shown the signs of divine favor as clearly as Caesarion did.
Malleolus released the reins, saying mildly, “I would sleep better tonight, my lord, if you’d allow me to follow you to the villa’s gates.”
A quick smile. “You’re going to insist?”
“I would never so presume. But I do ask, dominus.”
“For the sake of your good rest, then, yes.” A nod, and then the young patrician clucked at his horse, preparing to enter the city. But now his brother, young Alexander, caught the reins. “Caesarion,” Alexander said, his voice tight, “You’re not carrying a sword. You can enter the city legally. But . . . if you enter now, you’re giving up your right to a triumph.”
“I don’t care,” Caesarion replied impatiently. “Father had a choice once, between being accorded a triumph for his victories, and standing for election as consul. He chose the consulship. You pick the thing that’s more important. And seeing him before he dies . . . that’s more important.” He grimaced. “And ensuring that we’re here to deal with issues of succession, too. Gods. I hate thinking like this.”
Alexander shook his head sharply. Five years younger than his brother, he still seemed to have more political acumen. “A triumph will ensure the love of the plebeians. And you must have the mob behind you before dealing with the Senate.”
Caesarion’s expression tautened. “It’s strange, Alexander. I see your face, but I hear our mother’s voice when you speak.” An impatient shake of his head. “Every man who stood with me in Germania deserves that triumph. They all deserve that recognition, because without the men who followed me, the seventh Legion would have been cut off, surrounded, and destroyed in that damned forest.” His face settled into stubborn lines. “But holding a triumph instead of making my way to Father’s deathbed?” He regarded Alexander steadily. “Bad taste. It would look as if I valued his position more than his life.” He stared at the Porta Flaminia, and then turned his head and spat into the dust at the side of the road. “To Dis with the damned triumph. Let’s go home, brother.”
Centurion Ramirus Modius Malleolus trotted silently alongside the pair as they entered the city. They looked far too young to bear the weight of the Empire on their shoulders. But Caesarion will have to carry it. And in spite of the young man’s high rank and youth, he liked Caesarion. Uncannily, almost everyone did. The love of his father’s legions was mostly assured, but Malleolus had seen freedmen and slaves who served the legionnaires in their camps—men who hated anyone with a patrician name—smile when Caesarion addressed them.
He sighed, and kept his eyes on the people crowding the streets. No one had yet given them more than a glance, but someone had to keep these two youngsters alive.
“Why so quiet, Malleolus?” Alexander asked as they pushed through a marketplace. The stripling had been sent on his brother’s campaign mostly to learn how military camps worked.
“I don’t mind fighting wars, dominus,” Ramirus replied tersely. “Not looking forward to another civil one, though.”
Caesarion’s head turned towards him. Malleolus prepared for a reprimand—he’d overstepped with that reply. But Caesarion surprised him. “Rome’s always at war,” he replied. “Constantly pushing out the borders. Bringing the light of our laws to the unwashed barbarians on our periphery.”
The words would have been innocuous to the ears of any Roman citizen. The tone, however, distinguished them. Pure irony, inviting Ramirus in. Suggesting a hint of likeness between the centurion and the god-born son of the Imperator.
And for an instant, Ramirus saw it. Ramirus’ Gallic mother had been taken as a slave somewhere in Hispania, explaining the centurion’s blond hair and height. She’d jumped into the Tiber to save the life of one of the noble children in her care, resulting in both her manumission and the noble name that she and her freeborn son bore. And this young patrician’s mother is as much a barbarian to Rome as mine. While she didn’t enter Rome as a slave, but as a queen . . . in this, if nothing else, he and I are alike.
“The problem,” Caesarion said now quietly, “is the same in Rome’s empire as it was in Alexander’s.”
His younger brother’s head swung towards him. Over the jingle of armor and tack, he exclaimed, “Alexander the Great conquered the known world!” The young man’s tone held bewilderment. “His body is kept in a temple in Alexandria, and he’s worshipped as a god, for all that he was as human as I am.” A hint of pride in the young man’s voice, for his namesake; he wasn’t even a god-born like you, brother. And look what he accomplished.
“Oh, he conquered it. And our own forefather Ptolemy found himself the ruler of a kingdom for his loyalty to his lord.” The irony hadn’t left Caesarion’s voice. “The problem, brother, isn’t conquering the world. It’s holding it. Keeping the provinces from rebelling. Keeping the government from becoming more corrupt. Keeping the lines of communications open. All the administrative details at which conquerors usually fail.” He frowned. “So yes, Malleolus. As you say . . . civil war might well arise once more.”
Stunned at his inclusion in this conversation, the centurion remained silent. But at the villa any misapprehensions the centurion might have had of being a kindred spirit dissipated as the young men disappeared into the elegant edifice, leaving him unattended.
Caesarion looked back to give the centurion a grateful, if dismissive wave, and then ducked through the door to dart upstairs to his father’s chambers, where he knocked. “Enter,” his mother’s voice called, and Caesarion obeyed, Alexander at his heels.
Inside, the smells of effluvia and illness struck him, even covered by the odor of costly incense, and his nostrils twitched. He’d smelled this before in the triage tents, as bowels evacuated and wounds turned septic. He is dying, Caesarion thought, but controlled his face, stepping forward to take his mother’s hands in greeting as she rose from Caesar’s bedside.
Forty years old, Cleopatra had been celebrated for decades as the greatest beauty the world had seen since Helen of Troy. Some of that praise was pablum; her nose could most kindly be described as beaky, and a large mole interrupted the smooth arc of one of her eyebrows. Lines had graven themselves on her face in the past year, and the first traces of white flecked her dark hair. However, her eyes still captured the attention of anyone who met her: large, dark, and wrapped in kohl, they sparkled with a ferocious intellect. “I’m relieved that you made good time over the Alps,” Cleopatra murmured with careful restraint, though her eyes were luminous with tears. “He’s been drifting in and out of consciousness for two days.”
“A seizure?” Caesarion asked, taking a seat at his father’s bedside.
“Not one of the usual ones. He can’t raise his right arm.” Cleopatra exhaled, obviously tightly controlling her face and voice for the benefit of the Egyptian servants hovering outside the door. “He told me that once you arrived, he’d trouble me to assist him with cutting his wrists.”
Caesarion’s head snapped up. “I’ll do it,” he told his mother, immediately. “You shouldn’t have to—”
“Peace. A son’s hands should not be stained with a father’s blood.” Her lips quirked, then quivered. “No matter how many times that has occurred in my family’s history.”
Julius Caesar opened his eyes and extended his left hand shakily for Caesarion’s. Alexander crowded close as Caesar croaked, “Bring Lepidus.” His voice was nearly inaudible. “Witness.”
His Master of the Horse, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a patrician in his own right, was quickly fetched. In his fifties and completely loyal, he stood beside his emperor’s bed, face composed and without tears, as Caesar spoke again, with difficulty. “My will . . . lodged with the Vestals. Coin set aside for Alexander and my daughters. Caesarion, you are my principal heir. You know this.” He closed his eyes. “Listen to Lepidus. Lean on him. Too old for a regent . . . never too old . . . for good counsel.” His fingers tightened on Caesarion’s. “Marry one of Crassus’ granddaughters, if you can. You’ll need their wealth. Keep the Legions paid, and they’ll never betray you. Be wary of Octavius and Antony. They are . . . jealous. Hungry. Use them . . . against each other.” His words slurred, and he opened his eyes once more, looking now at Cleopatra. “And if you happen to find love . . . consider yourself fortunate. But never let it dissuade you from duty.”
Caesarion nodded, his throat tight. I’m not ready, Father. You can’t leave us. But to give such weak and mewling words voice would not have comforted the dying man.
A pause, and then an almost incoherent mumble: “The sword . . . lost it at the river. Touched . . . by Mars. Find it . . . .” And moments after those final, inexplicable words, which sounded like the unraveling of mind that had lost all lucidity, Gaius Julius Caesar died without troubling anyone for the favor of a knife, after all.
Cleopatra put her head on the bed beside him and wept silently. Uncomfortable, unable to show his grief for a man that he’d followed loyally for close to thirty years, Lepidus turned towards Caesarion. “Shall I make the announcement and begin the traditional nine days of rituals?”
Caesarion stared blankly at the man for a moment. And the mill that is Rome grinds on, its great wheels churning. One man dies, and is ground to dust, and the next must take his place. “Yes. We’ll need a procession with all the family images. Mummers from the theater to carry them.” He didn’t know what to make of the words about the sword, and since no one around him commented on them, either, he put it aside.
Lepidus cleared his throat. “You won’t address the Senate until you’ve finished his funeral oration?” A delicate question, that. If Caesarion did address the Senate before the funeral was over, and asked them to vote on passing his father’s position as Emperor to him, it could be taken greatly amiss. On the other hand, if he didn’t, there would be a power vacuum in Rome for nine days.
Nine days were an eternity in which many plots and plans could unfold.
Quintilis 7, 15 AC
At a comfortable villa in the Palatine Hill district, Gaius Octavius Thurinus, generally called Octavian, lounged in the triclinium, his body relaxed, but his mind alert. His first guest had arrived—Marcus Antonius—the wine had been poured, and the servants dismissed. He regarded the older man, his eyes narrow as he studied the graying dark curls and the bags under Antony’s eyes. “It’s good to have you here,” he told Antony. “You’ve completed your year’s mourning for my sister, and are ready to rejoin the world of the living once more?” Not that you ever truly left it. But the polite fiction left room for Antony to behave as if they both believed he was a better man than he was.
Antony’s lips curled as he sipped from his cup. “Yes, I’m ready. And yet, in the moment I leave off my mourning, I have cause to put it back on once more, for Caesar has passed.” A pause, as both men regarded one another like duelists; measuring, assessing. “Caesar was, after all, the one who sponsored my marriage to your beautiful sister.” Another polite fiction. Antony had merely tolerated his wife for decades, often seeking out more . . . stimulating company in Rome’s teeming brothels, or among slaves he purchased for precisely that purpose.
Octavian smiled faintly, suppressing his loathing. Antony could be useful, if properly motivated. “Yes. My uncle brought you into the family.”
“My mother was already his cousin—” Snapped with all the furious pride of a plebeian who had one noble relation.
“Of course,” Octavian soothed. “I meant to say that he embraced you as kin when you married my sister.” He paused, smiling into his cup. “As I still do, brother,” he added. “Regardless of my sister’s untimely passage, you will always be kin to me.” He paused again. Affiliations and affirmations dispensed with, it was time to draw nearer to the heart of the matter. “I’ve heard that Lepidus was named as guardian for Caesar’s younger children,” he murmured, watching a muscle twitch in Antony’s cheek.
“Lepidus,” Antony replied scornfully. “He’s spent the last fifteen years licking Caesar’s arse. Of course he’s been named their guardian.”
A brooding silence followed, which Octavian could have filled with words. Could have said, Fifteen years spent as Master of the Horse made him Caesar’s right hand, not an arse-licker. Instead, he took another sip of his wine and murmured, “You weren’t named at all?”
Another twitch of a jaw muscle. “No. Seems he forgot all my loyal service.”
“A pity. Though not all patricians have such faulty memories.” Octavian smiled again as Antony’s head jerked up. “However, I’m not sure that Lepidus is the correct man to oversee the upbringing of Caesar’s children. Nor to advise young Caesarion. He’s . . . cautious.”
“He’s been coasting for decades on a reputation for knowing when to fight and when to negotiate since that business in Hispania,” Antony replied dismissively—glossing over, Octavian noted, Lepidus’ notable military successes against Pompey during the civil wars. “He’s an old woman these days. And this is a time that calls for boldness.”
No unexpected sentiments. “It seems that perhaps young Caesarion needs more capable advisors,” Octavian replied.
“Young Caesarion,” Antony replied acidly, “isn’t likely to listen to me. His mother has hated me since I first met her in Egypt. When she was no more than fourteen.” His eyes seemed to peer through the decades between that moment and this. “So damnably beautiful, even then.”
And there was another potential piece of leverage, though Octavian had no way to use it at the moment. Antony lived his life at the surface of his skin, his lusts and hungers clearly evident. “Yes,” Octavian responded meditatively. “It’s a shame that young Caesarion is so . . . filled with his mother’s teachings. One might say that she’s poisoned him against Rome.”
Antony’s suddenly sharp glance reminded Octavian why it never did to be incautious. “One might say that,” he replied, baring his teeth. “I’m not, however.”
Octavian raised his cup in a mild toast. “Nor have I,” he returned urbanely. “However, that same hypothetical person might agree that it would be . . . better for Rome, were Caesar’s heir someone, hmm. Younger. More apt to be instilled with proper Roman virtues.”
To his surprise, Antony leaned forward and whispered harshly, “Are you testing my loyalties? Are there men outside this room, waiting to testify against me at a proscription?”
Proscription was a punishment that had been levied against hundreds of people in the time of Sulla. They had been stripped of their citizenship, and all the protections that it provided—for example, citizens could not be crucified. Their lands, slaves, and money were seized by the state, leaving their families paupers, while the proscribed individuals fled Roman lands, often one step ahead of an executioner. Caesar, to his credit, had used the punishment sparingly—mostly to silence those who would not acknowledge his marriage to Cleopatra and the legitimacy of his heirs by her.
Octavian shook his head, raising a soothing hand. “Never in life,” he assured Antony. “Did I not say just moments ago that I consider you my brother?”
The suspicion in Antony’s gaze did not fade, however. “There is the matter of Caesarion being a god-born,” he muttered.
Octavian waved a hand. “That is somewhat in question. His eyes are a strange color, yes, but the mage-priests of Thebes are skilled. An illusion, some bargain with a spirit? A simple pretense. A lie to keep the boy alive past infancy.”
As Antony frowned in consideration, a servant entered and announced, “Your other guest has arrived, dominus.”
Octavian waved the newcomer in, and Antony sat up, his pouchy eyes widening in surprise. Alexander Julius Caesar entered the room, wearing a fresh white toga that swamped his slender frame. “Cousin,” Alexander greeted Octavian with a polite nod, but his eyes were wide, and he seemed a little overwhelmed by his sudden introduction into adult privilege. “I was surprised to receive your invitation, as our home is in mourning, but my mother assured me that there would be no disrespect to my father’s memory in dining with kin.” His dark eyes took in Antony, slouching on one of the dining couches, and then returned to Octavian.
For his part, Alexander kept his mother’s long-standing advice in mind. Conceal your strength. Let everyone underestimate you, until you have their measure. When dealing with someone who is complex . . . be simple. Be water in a cup. Transparent. Speak little, hear much, and react not at all until you know who they truly are.
So he smiled and allowed a servant to help him up onto a couch, and accepted food and drink gracefully. “This is marvelous after six months on legion rations,” he admitted, and heard Antony bray with laughter.
“Six months in the legion, and you’re an expert, eh? You haven’t even been on short rations yet, have you, lad?” Antony bit into a dormouse from the trencher in front of him. “Doubt you’ve been digging many ditches or setting palisades yet, either.”
Alexander shook his head, lowering his eyes. “No, not at all. I served as my brother’s scribe.”
Looks of intrigue on both of the older men’s faces. Antony smiled and offered, “You were entrusted with official correspondence? That speaks well of you, lad!” The Tribune of the Plebs leaned in, lowering his brows conspiratorially. “Careful, though. Even thinking of any secrets you read is dangerous around Octavian here. He can pluck secrets from a man’s mouth before a word is even spoken.”
Alexander touched a ring on his hand, and it warmed. And then the spirit bound to that ring whispered in his mind, There is no magic in play here; nothing in this room can compel you to speak. Invisible to other eyes, a hawk made of green flame appeared, landing on his left shoulder. His mother had insisted that the mage-priests of Thebes bind protective spirits to each of her children at birth, and this was one of his.
Nothing to compel me to speak, except the weight of all this attention, Alexander thought. A cup of unwatered wine in my hand, and two of the most powerful men in Rome having invited me to sup with them. I am supposed to be overwhelmed. And he was—but with apprehension, not awe. His voice broke as he asked, “Are there no other guests tonight?”
“No,” Octavian replied, smiling gently. “Just a quiet celebration of your having attained the toga of manhood among . . . relatives and friends.” He toasted Alexander.
“Perhaps a little business,” Antony chimed in. “I have a daughter who’s about your age. Might be time to consider marriage, lad. After all, you are now Caesarion’s heir.”
Alexander caught the look of faint vexation that crossed Octavian’s face. “Caesarion’s heir?” Octavian put in, raising his eyebrows. “Some would say that Alexander is the heir to the Empire. After all, what is Caesarion but a legitimized bastard, while Alexander here was born within the sacred bounds of matrimony?” Warm sympathy in his voice. A hint of outrage at wrongs done to a friend.
Alexander thought rapidly. It was easy to resent his older brother, some days. The gods had ladled gifts over Caesarion—from Mars, skin so tough that no weapon could cut it, and enough strength to crush a man’s skull in his bare hands. From Venus, a smile so charming that few people had the will to gainsay him. From Osiris, immunity to poison. From Isis, healing. And from both of their mortal parents, gifts of shrewd intelligence and courage. They’d taken great pains to conceal Caesarion’s gifts. Most of their servants were Egyptian, completely loyal to Cleopatra and unable to speak Latin, for precisely this reason.
But on the other hand . . . Caesarion hadn’t been required to take Alexander into Germania; he’d offered to take his younger brother with him. And just this morning, he’d sent the new toga to Alexander’s rooms, though Alexander’s fourteenth birthday wouldn’t be for months. Our family needs all the men it can muster, with Father no longer with us, the accompanying note had read. And warmed by his brother’s trust, Alexander had worn the toga with pride, a man in the eyes of his family.
So he lowered his eyes and replied softly, “I thank you for the idea of a marriage, Tribune. I had always thought that my brother would give me one of our sisters in marriage, and send me to Egypt to rule as king there in his place.” A quick glance to verify the expressions of revulsion on those Roman, patrician faces at this alien Egyptian practice. “I would have to ask my mother about any other marriage plans,” he added, trying to sound tremulous and dependent on others. It wasn’t difficult. He knew that he was in deep waters here, and wished, desperately, that Lepidus had sent someone with him. But that’s the wish of a child, and I’m supposed to be a man now. And they wouldn’t have spoken this way in front of witnesses. “As for the rest,” he added, raising his eyes to Octavian, “I really don’t know much about politics. Or about strategy and war. I just copied my brother’s letters, and wrote whatever he dictated to me.”
Simple. Easily-led. As transparent as a cup of water. And he could see Octavian’s eyes light up with a kind of excitement as the man leaned forward, smiling. “Oh, my dear boy! You have no idea of what has been taken from you, do you?”
Alexander let his brow crinkle. “Taken?” he repeated vaguely.
“There are those who might say that you have been cheated of your birthright,” Octavian replied carefully.
Always putting words in the mouths of invisible others, Alexander noted. “My birthright?” Just reiterating the others’ words. Forcing them to do more of the work. “I should be the next Imperator, and not Caesarion?” he added hesitantly, as if slowly adopting the idea as his own. I might be going too far.
“It’s a pleasant thought, isn’t it?” Antony offered, glancing over at Octavian.
Alexander shook his head rapidly. “I wouldn’t know what to do,” he protested. Truth, this time. “I’d need help.”
Octavian’s tone became soothing. “I’m sure that there would always be those on hand whom you could trust to advise you.” A dismissive wave. “Of course, this is a moot discussion. There’s nothing that could stop Caesarion from taking the title of Imperator in just a few days’ time.”
The subject dropped there, but Alexander remained nervous for the rest of the meal. And when his litter came around to carry him home over the filthy streets of Rome, he chewed on his knuckles until the moment that he escaped its confines to flee into the villa. He ran directly to his brother’s room, and, finding Caesarion there at his writing table, dropped to a crouch beside him.
“That’s not an expression that bodes well,” Caesarion said, looking up from their father’s eulogy.
“Octavian thinks that I’d make a more biddable heir than you.” Alexander’s voice shook. “I played the idiot, and he almost had to wipe away the drool.”
Caesarion grimaced. “Mother said he’d probably make a move, such as trying to betroth you to one of his daughters—”
“Oh, so that’s why he looked so angry when Antony suggested that—”
“Antony’s in this with him?”
“He was at dinner with us. I couldn’t tell if they were working together.” Alexander caught his brother’s upper arm, feeling the strength there, muscles like raw iron masked by illusions maintained by spirits. “Brother. He said that there’s nothing that could stop you from taking the title of Imperator after Father’s funeral rites are done.”
Caesarion’s red eyes bored down into his own. “In this? He is absolutely correct.”
Quintilis 9, 15 AC
Novendialis, the ninth day of mourning, required sacrifices and feasting—and, since Caesar had stood as a father to the entire Empire, not just to his own family, everyone in the Empire partook of the feast. Caesarion, after Lepidus had shown him the budget, had winced and sponsored games in Rome for the Novendialis at the expense of the Julii family. Thus, he could hear the roar of the crowd as chariots raced in the Circus Maximus, the massed voices erupting from the structure shaking the ground as he stood in the cemetery. At his side was the entire extended Julii clan—including distant cousins like Octavian and Antony.
Lepidus held down the sacrificial sow, and Caesarion slashed a knife across its throat, letting its blood pour over the grass. “For Ceres,” he said clearly. “Blood in the earth, and protection from all vengeful spirits.” As the sow’s struggles and squeals ceased, he went about the butchery matter-of-factly, setting aside the portion that would be cremated with his father’s body with due reverence. Food for the ghost.
The rest would be served at dinner, to which all these people would be invited. Another roar from the crowds resonated up through his body, but Caesarion ignored the distraction and poured a generous libation of wine over the hungry earth, splashing the hem of a toga already stained with the sow’s blood.
As everyone departed, Marcus Antonius paused to speak with him. “The mob loved your father,” he said, as the ground shook once more with thunderous roars.
“They had good reason to,” Caesarion replied mildly. After all, he gave them games, victory, and peace. He gave them a voice, too—for patrician though he was, he was a populist.
Antony smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Just keep in mind that the mob is fickle. If they turn against you, they’ll cook you and eat you in your own house.”
It sounded almost like a threat. Caesarion met the gaze of the Tribune of the Plebs—a man who could whip the common folk into a frenzy with a few words, were he so inclined. “I thank you for your warning,” he replied. “I think, however, that my eulogy for my father will allay much unease today.”
Antony nodded. “Yes, you’re the final speaker at the Rostra. Octavian’s scheduled just before you. Cicero’s before him.”
Caesarion tried not to swallow his tongue. Cicero, a frail, elderly man these days, had been carefully carried in from his country villa, where he lived in retirement. He remained, however, the greatest orator of this age, whereas Caesarion had never spoken before the Senate or anyone but a group of legionnaires before. I can only pale in comparison.
Thus, two hours later, Caesarion sat in the Rostra, trying not to shake, listening as Cicero lauded his late father. “While I disagreed with him on almost every particular,” the elderly republican declared, “he was a noble man, filled with high ideals and love of his country. I counted him my friend, even when we disagreed. Perhaps even more so than when we were in agreement, for out of disagreement, new ideas may grow.” Leaning lightly on a stick, he gestured at the Rostra. “And out of disagreement, what an idea has grown. A Rome stronger than it was fifteen years ago. More united. And with less corruption in her governance. While I will ever hold to the ideals of our beloved Republic, I must admit that my friend’s life was to the benefit of our home.”
Polite applause as Cicero shakily made his way back to his seat. Then Octavian spoke at some length, and, in his conclusion, exclaimed, “How like a god was Caesar! No—not like a god. But a god, in truth, as should be recognized by the Senate. For who else but Caesar could have brought us all together, republicans and populists alike? Who else could have been a father to this entire mighty empire? While I know that grief touches every heart now, how much lighter will our spirits feel, knowing that his divine hand will govern through his successors?”
The crowd, frenzied, began to clamor for precisely this. “Divus Iulius! Divus Iulius!”
Caesarion stared at Octavian, trying to fathom the political motivation behind this insanity . . . . Ah. He said that my father will guide the Empire through his successors. Plural, and unnamed. Whoever winds up in control—perhaps Octavian himself, should my brother and I mysteriously die—would partake of the divine spirit of my father. Legitimacy.
A frown on his face, Caesarion took the speaker’s position. His prepared remarks had to be thrown away, for he needed to stop the runaway reaction of the crowd without causing a riot.
As such, he raised a hand for silence, and then pitched his voice to be heard. “Friends! Fellow Romans! When my father first stood before you to speak, it was at the funeral of his own aunt, Julia. He reminded you all that she descended from kings on one side, and the goddess Venus on the other.” His voice rang back from the marble all around him, and the murmur of the crowd died as they thirstily drank in his words. “Yet she was not a goddess, for all her descent from the gods. Nor was my father a god. Nor am I.” Yet, with that phrase, he also reminded everyone there of what he was—a god-born, if an untested one. “Rome has gods in plenty,” he went on as people around him frowned. The mob did not like having its will thwarted. “My father never desired worship—only your trust. Trust me now, as you trusted him, and know that the gods speak through me, their servant. And they say that no mortal should be worshipped as they are.” He turned and regarded Octavian for a moment.
“For example, it has been the custom in Egypt to worship the pharaohs. There are priests in Thebes even now who lead the faithful in prayer to my mother . . . and to me. This is a custom that I intend to abolish. For I know that I, like my father, am but a man.” He caught what looked like an approving nod from Cicero, and exhaled. It couldn’t be for the quality of his oration, which was flat and unbalanced, but for the sentiments it expressed. “I am not here today to speak of my father’s death,” he went on now, “but to celebrate his life, and express my gratitude for the services he has rendered unto Rome.” Back safely into his prepared remarks, he could relax a little. And gradually, he felt the crowd accept the image of Caesar, not as a god, but as a man.
That night at the funeral feast, eating the roast flesh of the sow sacrificed at his father’s grave, and drinking conditum paradoxum, the heavily sweetened and spiced wine served at such affairs, Caesarion tasted something bitter in his drink, and set the cup aside. Lepidus, seated to his right, and substantially tipsy himself, mistook Caesarion’s cup for his own, took it in hand, and quaffed it.
Two minutes later, the venerable general doubled over on his dining couch. Saliva frothed at his mouth, as from a rabid dog’s, and sweat poured down his face in rivulets. Caesarion stood beside him, hands on his shoulders, letting the power of Isis flow into Lepidus’ frame. Don’t die. I need you. Rome needs you.
The general’s eyes closed, and Caesarion leaned forward, checking for breath. “He’s unconscious, but alive,” he announced to the shocked onlookers. “Get him to a bed, and call for a medicus. Also, don’t let anyone leave the villa—not even a servant. I want to question them all.”
Antony, who’d been seated at a different couch, picked up the cup, sniffing it. “Impossible to tell what poison was used,” he said. “Concealed in the spiced wine—a clever trick.” He frowned. “You drank from the same cup, lad. Do you eat poisons every day, like Mithridates, that it did not affect you?”
Caesarion shook his head. “It may have been painted on the rim,” he answered, a well-rehearsed response. “My lips must not have touched where Lepidus’ did.” Never show your full strength, his father’s voice came back to him. Not until you need to show it. Conceal it, harbor it, and then use it, effectively and devastatingly.
Hours later, one of the servants hired for the feast was found dead, dangling by the knotted cord of her own stola, from a tree branch in the garden. “The poison was aconite,” Cleopatra informed Caesarion, her eyes dark and angry. “The trail ends with her, unless we can conjure spirits who can tell us from whose hand came the coins in her purse.”
Exhausted in body and soul, for it was now past midnight, and healing others deeply drained him of his vital energies, Caesarion shook his head. “I suspect Octavian, or perhaps one of Cato’s grandchildren. Poison isn’t Antony’s style. Father always considered him a good soldier. Honorable, after his fashion.” He paused. “But without proof, I cannot accuse.”
Cleopatra put a hand on his shoulder. “Tomorrow,” she said softly, “you will be Rome. You must act decisively, and sometimes outside the laws that Romans so cherish. Be more Roman than they are, for so long as you stand on their soil. And when you go to Egypt, as you must, be more Egyptian than any there whom you rule.” Her eyes glittered.
“Malleolus and the rest of the men are certain that a civil war is coming.” The words felt like a confession, wrenched from him.
“Power struggles are endemic, my son.” Her voice sounded like ashes. “I fought my war against my brother, and your father aided me. Now, it’s your turn.”
“Civil war has gutted this land. It’s time for something else, Mother. A civil peace, perhaps.” He sighed. “I just don’t know how to achieve it.” And in those words, a world of defeat. “Mother, how do I reach for all of old Cicero’s republican ideals of truth and justice, which I know that my father prized . . . in a world in which no one else holds to those ideals?”
“Ruthlessness,” she replied. “It’s the language your father spoke to them. For all their pretty words about law and order and beauty and truth? Romans only understand a fist wrapped in iron.”
He gave her a long, considering glance. “I need to split Antony and Octavian, somehow. Get one of them firmly on my side.” His eyes burned, for all his god-born strength. “I can’t tie Alexander to either of their daughters. I may need him in Egypt.” A nod from her prompted him to continue. “I won’t tie myself to them, either,” he added. “Father was right. I need a Roman bride—” Be more Roman than the Romans themselves, he thought, “but not their kin.”
“You need a blood-tie that promises one of them power and access—but choose the less dangerous of them. Antony.”
Caesarion’s stomach turned. “One of my sisters could marry Antony.” A grimace. He’d been raised in the knowledge that if somehow, his father were deposed, and Caesarion escaped to Egypt and ruled there, that one of his younger sisters would have to become his wife. The idea didn’t disturb him; duty rarely did. But it also wasn’t his preference. However, giving twelve-year-old Eurydice or ten-year-old Selene to that . . . voluptuary old man sickened him.
“No! Not that.” His mother’s face looked stricken. “Not them. They’re . . . far more sheltered than I was, at their age.” Ironic words, considering she had been brought up in a king’s palace.
“You just told me to be ruthless.”
Her eyes gleamed, ophidian, in the low light of the lamps streaming out onto the small portico in which they stood. “In this case, my son, I will be your bond. Antony may like his women younger than I am now, but he has lusted after me for decades. The reason he was dismissed from your father’s staff was his renewed attempt to seduce me ten years ago.” She bared her teeth momentarily. “Offer me in marriage, my son. It can’t be carried out till our year’s mourning is complete, of course, but the offer alone will gain you his attention.”
Caesarion shook his head. “I can’t ask you to do that.” He searched wildly for reasons not to agree. “You were married to Caesar. Any other marriage would be a step down—”
“You aren’t asking. I’m offering.” Her voice held tears, but also power. “And if I find that I cannot tolerate his advances? Once your position is secure, I have alternatives.” She lifted her hand, and a snake formed of blue light blazed around her wrist momentarily. The spirit’s bite left no mark on its victims, but brought a swifter and surer death than the aconite that had poisoned Caesarion’s cup this evening.
Part of him shuddered at the cold certainty in his mother’s voice and mien. The rest of him accepted her for who and what she was: Cleopatra, daughter of the Nile. “I’ll speak to him in the morning,” he replied, his voice thick. Here is the true measure of ruthlessness. She’s willing to do anything to assure that her children survive and prosper. “Before I go before the Senate.” A pause as he struggled for the words. “Thank you, Mother.”
Quintilis 10, 15 AC
Caesarion met with Antony in the morning to discuss a tie of marriage between them. A queen, a former empress, offered as bait to a man who’d been born a plebeian, and now held the mob of Rome in the palm of his hands. The look of surprised delight on Antony’s face couldn’t entirely hide the lust in his eyes, and Caesarion rigorously repressed any thoughts of his mother in this man’s arms.
At noon, he had to make the long walk through Rome, unarmed and unarmored, to the Forum. Alexander insisted on walking with him, and Cleopatra saw them off, unable to attend the investiture, for foreign kings and queens were forbidden to step on the sacred soil of Rome. “Fifteen years ago, I watched your father leave just this way,” she murmured, her voice catching. “If Brutus hadn’t told him of the conspiracy—if Brutus hadn’t given his life to save him from the assassins . . . you and I would both be dead, my son.”
Caesarion touched his mother’s arm. “But we’re not. And I do not intend to die today.” He clapped Alexander on the shoulder, and the two set off, the sun warming the folds of their purple-trimmed togas. While he wasn’t supposed to have any guards, he could see Malleolus trailing after them, his eyes on the crowds lining the streets to cheer and throw flowers at the sons of Caesar.
In sight of the Forum, the screams began. Caesarion swung around, and saw men with long knives erupting out of the crowd from both sides of the street. Seven of them, he realized distantly, grabbing Alexander by the arm and trying to get his younger brother behind him. And then they were on them.
People screamed and ran, or surged in on all sides, trying to catch the assailants’ arms. But where Caesar had been fifty-five when he’d been attacked in this fashion, Caesarion was eighteen—and god-born.
The first knife came down on his left forearm, raised to block the strike, and he felt the impact against the bone—but it was dull, as if he’d been hit with a stick. He caught the attacker’s forearm with his left hand, trapping the blade, and stepped in, punching his attacker in the throat as he stripped the blade away, taking it for his own. But the man tucked his chin, turning a lethal shot into a more glancing blow. In response, Caesarion spun, turning his back to the man. In these tight quarters, the move held an attack, as he brought the knife back, slicing deeply into his opponent’s thigh, near the groin. He’ll bleed out from that.
The turn also let him see the two men who’d been behind him as they moved in to attack. He ducked as one knife bloodlessly clipped his brow, and a second knife thudded against his shoulder.
Dizzying awareness that there were more assailants to his right; that Alexander was struggling with them, too, trying to wrestle the knives from the grasps of men who’d clearly fought in the legions, and who wore, damnably, the togas of citizens. You are my people! Caesarion wanted to shout. I’m one of you! I’ve fought beside you! We’re brothers, you and I!
But it hadn’t mattered to the conspirators fifteen years ago, and it didn’t matter to these men, now. Caesarion spun, kicked one of his attackers in the groin, and managed to slash the throat of a third with the knife he’d taken from the first. A brief glimpse of Malleolus entering the fight, trying to get to Alexander, and then a sickening cry of pain from Alexander himself, as his brother went down under two more men. This pair now surged forward, trying to drive Caesarion to the ground, where they could hold him down and stab at will.
Except Caesarion couldn’t be dragged down. A man landed on his shoulders, and his knees flexed slightly. He turned his face away from the blade scraping uselessly at his cheek. A second man charged into him, trying to tie up his arms. He kicked the man in front of him away, reached behind himself, and got a hold on the head of the man grappling him. Then he dropped himself forward, throwing the man over his own head and on top of the man he’d just kicked away. The two hit the hard pavement of the street in a tangle of limbs, and Caesarion dropped to a crouch, driving his knife home into two exposed throats.
A quick glance to verify that Malleolus, bleeding freely, stood over Alexander’s crumpled form, fending off two more men to his right. With no threats behind him, Caesarion moved forward, inexorable as death, and the two men menacing Malleolus turned away from the centurion, towards him now. Which proved a mistake as Malleolus, with a knife taken from an attacker’s hands, stepped in behind one of them and drove the blade into his back, threading between ribs to find lung.
The eyes of the last man appeared lost as he faced off against Caesarion. He knows he’s defeated, Caesarion thought, and shouted, “Surrender, and tell me who else is involved—”
“Death to tyrants! Death to those who would sully Rome with foreign blood and foreign queens!” And the man attacked again, in the sure knowledge that death awaited him, no matter what his actions now were.
Caesarion let him come. Let the knife impact on his chest. Saw it bounce away, and heard the hush of the crowd as he caught the man’s hand in his own, snapping the wrist with a twist. And then he drove the knife, still in the man’s hand, into the assailant’s belly. That’s a slow death, he thought distantly, turning back towards Malleolus and Alexander now.
“Are you all right?” he started to ask, and then the words glued themselves to his tongue, for Malleolus had just turned Alexander over, revealing the knife buried deep in the boy’s chest.
His brother opened his eyes as Caesarion gathered him up in his arms, blood spreading over the white toga he’d been so proud to wear. “Sorry,” Alexander apologized, and the word burned in Caesarion’s mind. “I . . . couldn’t stop them . . . .”
My brother is dying, and he’s apologizing for not being able to stop assassins sent to kill me. Numbness spread through him, and Caesarion took an experimental stride towards the Forum. The blood of his attackers had soaked his toga, and now his brother’s blood, hot and wet, trickled down his arms. “Hold on,” he told Alexander, his throat constricting. I can’t lose both him and Father in the same ten days. “I can heal you. But the Senate has to see you. They have to see us. Or they’ll never understand. So hold on.”
He sped to a trot, and the citizens of Rome, always keen for a spectacle, trailed along behind him.
Alexander’s breathing was labored as they entered the Forum, and the senators gathered there spooled forward from their seats like threads from a loom, gathering on all sides. Staring like the mob outside. Everyone in Rome loves a show, Caesarion reflected distantly. The bloodier the spectacle, the better.
He settled Alexander on the only chair here with a back—their father’s throne, and how bitterly the senators had begrudged Caesar a chair different from the traditional curule—the knife still protruding from his thin chest. Then he pulled the blade out, tossing it away before planting his hands on his brother’s body. “Heal me,” Alexander begged, his voice barely audible.
“I’m trying,” Caesarion whispered, crouching down to speak in his brother’s ear. The power of Isis built in him, but he could feel death rising in his brother’s body. Please, my lady, he begged silently. Take whatever you wish of me. But do not let my brother die. Not for me. “I should have done this in the street.” I wasted time. I wasted my brother’s life so that these men, with their Roman rationalism, could see both the extent of his wounds, and my ability to heal them. “Forgive me.”
He stroked Alexander’s short hair, and swallowed a spasm of grief as his brother’s breathing hitched. And then stopped. My sacrifice was not accepted. For all the powers of the god-born . . . I too, must accept when the answer of the gods is no. For I am but a man. Bitter tears burned his throat, but he could not let them fall.
Voices swept through his mind then, overwhelming the chatter of the senators around him. Voices that he’d lived with all his life, but which usually spoke to him in dreams. My gift is more than just healing, Isis whispered in his mind. I also bring rebirth. But at a price. Nothing from nothing, as you mortals say. A life for a life. But choose wisely.
Her voice seemed distant compared to the thunder that was Mars in his ears. You know what you must do. My people have bled themselves dry, throwing themselves upon one another for generations. Find your strongest enemy, and defeat him decisively. The rest will hesitate to attack, and may even surrender.
It was strange, how much the voice of Mars sounded like the voice of his own father.
Staring at his brother’s face, Caesarion came back to himself, realizing that Cicero and Octavian had pushed through the crowd to stand close now. Cicero shook his gray head sadly. “I wish that I had not lived to see this once, let alone a second time,” he said, his voice stilling the crowd. “Our sacred Forum, profaned with blood.”
Coldness filled Caesarion. No rage yet, no fury. Just emptiness. He stood, touched a ring on his finger, and whispered a Name under his breath. “Release the illusions you hold over me,” he murmured to the attendant spirit his mother had bound to him at birth.
Are you certain? These illusions were intended to protect you—
They need to see who I am.
As you wish.
Caesarion looked down. He hadn’t seen his own skin, uncovered by illusion, since the age of twelve, when the strength of Mars had first manifested itself. Thus, even for him, seeing the additional muscle that had developed over the past years came as a surprise. His frame didn’t seem bulky, but definitely appeared that of an adult man in the prime of life, not that of a callow youth.
The senators around him recoiled, seeing evidence of magic used first-hand. Rome paid heed to its gods, practiced auguries, and gave daily sacrifices to house-spirits, the lares and penates. But magic, true magic, as practiced in Hellas, Egypt, and Persia, was little known here, and was viewed with suspicion.
Into the pool of silence that had gathered at Cicero’s words, Caesarion now spoke, raggedly, and with only his native eloquence. “My lords, I allow you to see me now, for who and what I am. My parents both believed that my true strength should remain hidden. They feared that while I am god-born of Mars—a god of Rome!—that Romans would not permit me to live to adulthood if they truly understood what I am.” He gestured to his brother’s corpse, and now the rage began to build, almost choking him. “I see now how wise they were to practice this deception.”
The men of the Senate backed up a step or two as Caesarion rested his bloody hands on his brother’s limp shoulders. He could see Malleolus hovering at the door of the chamber, unable to enter, but looking stricken. “All I have heard for the past nine days,” Caesarion continued steadily, “is that with my father’s death, civil war seems inevitable. And how I must be ruthless with all of you to ensure that no such thing transpires, or that if it does, that it at least will be of short duration. My lords, the gods themselves tire of your wars. I am here today to tell you that there will be no civil discord on my ascension to my father’s offices.” His hands tightened on his brother’s shoulders. “In fact, I am here to assure it.”
Murmurs from the crowd.
A life for a life, Isis whispered again. Choose wisely.
Cicero stood nearby; he was an old man, who’d given his life to the service of a republic that no longer existed. But he remained the voice of liberty, of justice, of all the old values that Caesarion himself prized. And, equally near, Octavian stood as well, his brow wrinkled with what looked like concern as he stared at Alexander’s corpse. You didn’t want him dead. Fury still burned in Caesarion. You wanted him as your puppet. You didn’t order his death, but that doesn’t mean that your associates—if associates they were—couldn’t have killed him by accident. No proof. Never any damned proof.
But Octavian was the other face of Rome, the flip side of the coin from Cicero. Ruthless pragmatism. Someone who would use whatever tool he had, to accomplish the goal at hand. The two, side by side? Principles balanced against pragmatism.
And, while Caesarion hated to think this way, he had to do so, quickly. Octavian could be a valuable ally. He was a young man, where Cicero was old and worn. He had energy and a life still to give to the Empire, where Cicero had none. It would be the more pragmatic thing to do, to take the life of the old man, and use it as Isis whispered that he could. But in doing so, he’d be extinguishing the last light of the old Republic.
And this, Caesarion could not do. Attack your strongest enemy, defeat him decisively, and conquer the rest through their fear. He looked up after his long pause, and continued, iron ringing in his voice, “I have no evidence of who directed the attack on me that injured Lepidus last night. I have no evidence of who ordered the attack on me that cost the life of my brother. I do not need evidence. Justice, today, will be truly blind, for I require only that an example be made. So that you all understand.”
He raised one blood-stained hand from Alexander’s shoulder and clasped Octavian’s, almost companionably. Felt the sickening rush of energy as Octavian’s life rushed through him, and into Alexander. Octavian’s knees buckled, and he hit the marble floor, choking and gasping on his own blood, as Alexander coughed sharply and sat up, reaching for the wound in his chest that was no longer there. “What—what happened?” Alexander cried.
Caesarion staggered, and he had to brace himself on his father’s chair to remain standing amid the cries of consternation around him. “Be silent!” he shouted over their voices, swaying where he stood, his vision skewing. “Listen, and hear me very well. If at any point in the future, some member of my family should be murdered again, the person who took that life will recompense me in exactly this way.” A muscle in his cheek twitched. “You can, if you so wish, make your houses into charnel yards. And I will accommodate each and every one of you. Or you can come to understand, gentlemen, that the era in which you all squabbled for power is over. You may advise. You may consent. You may control the budget. You can impose taxes and provide services. You can and you will keep order in the city.” That last, with a look at the stunned Marcus Antonius. “But you will . . . not . . . rule. That is my duty and my burden.”
The senators didn’t take long to find their voices, but their arguments seemed halfhearted at best. They’d seen a genuine miracle performed before their eyes . . . and none of them wished to become the next object lesson of divine power. And so, after the first hour of tedious debate, Caesarion sent Alexander home in a litter to recover, feeling guilty as he did. He hoped his brother never came to remember today as the day on which Caesarion had let him die.
After the Senate finally acclaimed Caesarion the God-Born as Emperor of Rome, Cicero was the last to leave. A little curl to his old, colorless lips as he moved to address Caesarion, who stepped down from his chair and offered his elder a respectful arm to help convey him to the door. “I did not realize that your father had planned for the final death of the Republic in the person of his son,” Cicero murmured.
“I love the ideals of the Republic,” Caesarion replied honestly. “But no one in this chamber has lived those ideals in decades. I will uphold them.” He grimaced. “As best as they will allow me.”
Cicero stopped and looked at him. “Make them see,” he rasped. “Make them see the waste of lives, wealth, and potential in every civil war. Turn them against outsiders if you must, but Rome herself must be reborn, and her promise extended to all within her borders.”
Caesarion nodded. “That was my father’s dream, too,” he replied. “And I will honor it.”
“Ave, then, Caesarion,” Cicero returned. “May the Fates be kinder to you than they usually are to conquerors.”
This story originally appeared in Ave, Caesarion (novel).