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Turtledove / VIDESSOS CYCLE VOLUME TWO
“Too hot and sticky,” Marcus Aemilius Scaurus complained, wiping his sweaty forehead with the heel of his hand. In late afternoon Videssos’ towering walls shaded the practice field just outside them, but it was morning now, and their gray stone reflected heat in waves. The military tribune sheathed his sword. “I’ve had enough.”
“You northerners don’t know good weather,” Gaius Philippus said. The senior centurion was sweating as hard as his superior, but he reveled in it. Like most Romans, he enjoyed the Empire’s climate.
But Marcus sprang from Mediolanum, a north Italian town founded by the Celts, and it was plain some of their blood ran in his veins. “Aye, I’m blond. I can’t help it, you know,” he said wearily; Gaius Philippus had teased him for his un-Roman looks as long as they had known each other.
The centurion could have been the portrait on a denarius himself, with his wide, squarish face, strong nose and chin, and short cap of graying hair. And like nearly all his countrymen, Scaurus included, he kept on shaving even after two and a half years in Videssos, a bearded land. The Romans were stubborn folk.
“Look at the sun,” Marcus suggested.
Gaius Philippus gauged it with a quick, experienced glance. He whistled in surprise. “Have we been at it that long? I was enjoying myself.” He turned to the exercising legionaries, shouting, “All right, knock off! Form up for parade to barracks!”
The soldiers, original Romans and the Videssians, Vaspurakaners, and others who had joined their ranks since they came to the Empire, laid down their double-weight wicker swords and heavy practice shields with groans of relief. Gaius Philippus, who was past fifty, had more stamina than most men twenty and thirty years his junior; Scaurus had envied it many times.
“They’re looking quite good,” he said.
“It could be worse,” Gaius Philippus allowed. Coming from the veteran, it was highest praise. A thoroughgoing professional, he would never be truly satisfied by anything short of perfection—or, at least, would never admit it if he was.
He grumbled as he rammed his sword into its bronze scabbard. “I don’t like this polluted blade. It’s not a proper gladius; it’s too long, Videssian iron is too springy, and the grip feels wrong in my hand. I should have given it to Gorgidas and kept my good one; the fool Greek wouldn’t have known the difference.”
“Plenty of legionaries would be happy to trade with you,” Marcus said. As he’d known it would, that made the veteran clap a protective hand to the hilt of the sword, which was in fact a fine sample of the swordsmith’s art. “As for Gorgidas, you miss him as much as I do, I’d say—and Viridovix, too.”
“Nonsense to the one and double nonsense to the other. A sly little Greekling and a wild Gaul? The sun must have addled your wits.”
The tribune knew insincerity when he heard it. “You’re not happy without something to grouse over.”
“Nor are you, unless you’re picking at my brains.”
Marcus smiled wryly; there was some truth in the charge. Gaius Philippus was a more typical Roman than he in more ways than looks, being practical, straightforward, and inclined to distrust anything that smacked of theory.
They made a formidable pair, with the veteran as shrewd tactician and Scaurus, whose Stoic training and political background gave him a breadth of view Gaius Philippus could never match, as strategist devising the legionaries’ best course. Before the tribune’s druid-enchanted sword met Viridovix’ and propelled the Romans to Videssos, he had not planned on a military career, but any rising young man needed to be able to point to some army time. Now, as mercenary captain in the faction-filled Empire, he needed all his political skill merely to survive among soldiers and courtiers who had been double-dealing, he sometimes thought, since before they left their mothers’ breasts.
“You there, Flaccus! Straighten it up!” Gaius Philippus shouted. The Roman shifted his feet an inch or two, then looked back inquiringly. Gaius Philippus glared at him, more from habit than anger. His gaze raked the rest of the soldiers. “All right, move out!” he said grudgingly. The buccinators’ cornets and trumpets echoed his command, a metallic blare.
The Videssian guardsmen at the Silver Gate saluted Marcus as they would one of their own officers, with bowed heads and right fists clenched over their hearts. He nodded back, but eyed the great iron-faced gates and spiked portcullis with scant liking; too many irreplaceable Romans had fallen trying unsuccessfully to force them the previous summer. Only rebellion inside the city had let Thorisin Gavras make good his claim to the Empire against Ortaias Sphrantzes, though Ortaias was no leader. With works like the capital’s, a defense did not need much leadership.
The legionaries tramped though the gloom of the walled passageway between the city’s outer and inner walls, and suddenly Videssos brawled around them. Entering the city was always like taking a big swig of strong wine. The newcomer breathed deeply, opened his eyes a little wider, and braced himself for the next pull.
Middle Street, Videssos’ chief thoroughfare, was one Marcus knew well. The Romans had paraded down it the day they first entered the capital, made a desperate dash to the palace complex when Ortaias was toppled from the throne, and marched along it countless times on their way back and forth between barracks and practice field.
It was a slow march today; as usual, Middle Street was packed tight with people. The tribune wished for a herald like that one he’d had the first day in Videssos, to clear the traffic ahead of him, but that was a luxury he no longer enjoyed. The legionaries were just behind a pair of huge, creaking wagons, both full of sand-yellow limestone for some building project or other. A dozen horses hauled each one, but at a snail’s pace.
Vendors swarmed like flies round the dawdling soldiers, shouting out the virtues of their wares: sausages and fried fish, which had flies of their own; wine; flavored ices—a favorite winter treat, but brought in by runner in warm weather, and so too expensive for most troopers’ wallets—goods of leather, or wicker, or bronze; and aphrodisiacs. “Make you good for seven rounds a night!” the peddler announced dramatically. “Here, you, sir, care to try it?”
He thrust a vial toward Sextus Minucius, newly promoted under- officer. Minucius was tall, handsome, and young, with a perpetual blue-black stubble on his cheeks and chin. In crested helmet and highly polished mail shirt, he cut an impressively masculine figure.
He took the little jar from the Videssian’s skinny hand, tossed it up and down as if considering, and gave it back. “No, you keep it,” he said. “What do I want with a potion to slow me down?” The legionaries bayed laughter, not least at the sight of one of Videssos’ glib hucksters at a loss for words.
Every block or two, it seemed, they passed one of Phos’ temples; there were hundreds of them in the city. Blue-robed priests and monks, their shaved heads gleaming almost as brightly as the golden globes atop the temples’ spires, were no small part of the street traffic. They drew the circular sun-sign of their faith as they passed Marcus’ troopers. Enough men, Videssians and Romans who had come to follow the Empire’s god, returned it to hold their ever-ready suspicions of heresay at bay.
The legionaries marched through the plaza of Stavrakios with its gilded statue of that great, conquering Emperor; through the din of the coppersmiths’ district, where Middle Street bent to run straight west to the Imperial Palaces; through the plaza called, for no reason Marcus had even been able to learn, the forum of the Ox; past the sprawling red-granite edifice that held Videssos’ archives—and its felons as well—and into the plaza of Palamas, the greatest of the imperial capital’s fora.
If Videssos the city was a microcosm of Videssos the empire, the plaza of Palamas was Videssos the city in small. Nobles wearing their traditional brocaded robes rubbed shoulders with street toughs in puffed-sleeve tunics and garish hose. Here a drunken whore lolled against a wall, her legs splayed open; there a Namdalener mercenary, the back of his head shaved so it would fit his helmet better, haggled with a fat Videssian jeweler over the price of a ring for his lady; there a monk and a prosperous-looking baker passed the time of day arguing some theological point, both smiling at their sport.
Seeing the mercenary made Scaurus glance at the Milestone, an obelisk of the same ruddy granite as the archives building, from which all distances in the Empire were reckoned. A huge placard at its base lauded the great count Drax, whose regiment of Namdaleni had crushed the revolt Baanes Onomagoulos had raised in the westlands. Onomagoulos’ head, just fetched to the city, was displayed above the placard. The late rebel was nearly bald, so instead of being hung by the hair, the head was suspended from a cord tied round its ears. Only a few Videssians paid any attention; in the past couple of generations, unsuccessful rebels had become too common to attract much notice.
Gaius Philippus followed Marcus’ eye. “Whoreson had it coming,” he said.
The tribune nodded. “After Mavrikios Gavras was killed, he thought the Empire should be his by right. He never could think of Thorisin as anything but Mavrikios’ worthless little brother, and if there’s any worse mistake to make, I can’t think of it offhand.”
“Nor I.” Gaius Philippus had a soldier’s respect for the Avtokrator of the Videssians, one which Thorisin Gavras returned.
The palace compound’s calm, uncrowded beauty always came as something of a shock after the ferment of the plaza of Palamas. Marcus was never sure how he would react to the transition; sometimes it soothed him, but about as often he felt he was withdrawing from life itself. Today, he decided, the plaza had been a little too strident for his taste. A quiet afternoon at the barracks doing nothing would suit him down to the ground.
“Sir?” the sentry said hesitantly.
“Eh? What is it, Fostulus?” Marcus looked up from the troops’ paysheet listings, looked down again so he would remember where he was, then looked up once more.
“There’s a baldy outside, sir, says he needs to talk with you.”
“A baldy?” The tribune blinked. “You mean, a priest?”
“What else?” Fostulus said, grinning; he was not one of the Romans who followed Phos. “Big fat fellow, must be rising fifty from the gray in his beard. He’s got a mean mouth,” the sentry added.
Marcus scratched his head. He knew several priests, but the description did not sound like any of them. Still, it would not do to offend Videssos’ religious hierarchy; in some ways it was more powerful than the Emperor himself. He sighed and rolled up the account parchment, tying it shut with a ribbon. “Bring him in, I suppose.”
“Yes, sir.” Fostulus saluted—Roman-style, with outthrust arm—then spun smartly on his heel and hurried back to the doorway. The hobnails in the soles of his caligae clicked on the slate floor.
“Took you long enough,” Scaurus heard the man grumbling as Fostulus led him back to the little table in the rear corner of the barracks hall that the tribune used as a makeshift office. Marcus rose to greet him as he approached.
Fostulus had been right; the priest was nearly of a height with Scaurus, whose northern blood gave him more inches than most Romans or Videssians enjoyed. And when they clasped hands, the fellow’s firm, dry grip showed considerable strength. “You can go now, Fostulus,” the tribune said. With another salute, the sentry returned to his station.
The priest flung himself into a chair, which creaked under his weight. Sweat darkened the armpits of his blue robe and sprayed from his shaved pate; Marcus was glad he had closed the account roll. “Phos’ light, standing there in the sun is hot work,” the Videssian said accusingly, his voice a rumbling bass. “D’you have any wine for a thirsty man?”
“Well, yes,” the tribune said, disconcerted by such brusqueness; most Videssians were smoother spoken. He found a jug and a couple of earthenware cups, poured, handed one cup to the priest, and raised the other in salute. “Your health, ah—” he paused, not knowing the man’s name.
“Styppes,” the priest said curtly; like all Videssian clerics, he had abandoned his surname, a symbol of his dedication to Phos alone.
Before he tasted the wine, he raised both hands to the sky, murmuring his faith’s basic creed: “We bless thee, Phos, Lord with the great and good mind, by thy grace our protector, watchful beforehand that the great test of life may be decided in our favor.” Then he spat on the floor in rejection of Skotos, Phos’ evil opponent in the Empire’s dualistic religion.
He waited for a moment for the Roman to join him in the ritual, but Scaurus, although he respected Videssos’ customs, did not ape the ones he failed to share. Styppes gave him a disdainful glance. “Heathen,” he muttered. Marcus saw what Fostulus had meant about his mouth; its narrow, bloodless lips barely covered strong yellow teeth.
Then Styppes drank, and the tribune had to fight to keep contempt from his face in turn. The Videssian drained his cup at a draught, filled it without asking Scaurus’ leave, emptied it once more, refilled, and swallowed a third while Marcus’ lips were hardly wet. Styppes started to pour again, but the jug gave out with his cup half-empty. He snorted in annoyance and tossed it off.
“Will the wine do you, or was there something else you wanted?” Scaurus asked sharply. He was immediately ashamed of himself; had Stoicism not taught him to accept each man as he was, good and bad together? If this Styppes loved the grape too well, despising him for it would hardly change him.
Marcus tried again, this time without sarcasm. “How can I, or perhaps my men, help you?”
“I doubt it would be possible,” Styppes answered, raising the tribune’s hackles afresh. “But I have been told to help you.” His sour expression did not speak well for his pleasure at the undertaking.
The priest was a veteran drinker. His speech did not slur, and he moved with perfect assurance. Only a slight flush to what had been a rather pallid complexion betrayed the wine he had on board.
Sipping from his own cup, Scaurus took hold of his temper with both hands. “Ah? Told by whom?” he asked, making a game stab at sound- ing interested. The sooner this sponge in a blue robe left, the better. He wondered whether his priestly friend Nepos or Balsamon the patriarch had sent him and, if so, what they had against the Romans.
But Styppes surprised him, saying, “Mertikes Zigabenos informs me you have lost your healer.”
“That’s so,” Scaurus admitted; he wondered how Gorgidas was faring on the Pardrayan steppe. Zigabenos was commander of the imperial bodyguard, and a very competent young man indeed. If this priest had his favor, perhaps there was something to him after all. “What of it?”
“He suggested I offer you my services. I have been trained in Phos’ healing arts, and it is not right for any unit of his Majesty’s army to be without such aid—even one full of pagans, as is yours,” Styppes ended disparagingly.
Marcus ignored that. “You’re a healer-priest? And assigned to us?” It was all he could do to keep from shouting with glee. Using themselves as channels of Phos’ energies, some priests could work cures on men Gorgidas had given up for dead; as much as anything, his failure to learn their methods had driven him to the plains. Nepos had healed his share, even though he was no specialist in the art. To have a man who was could prove more precious than rubies, Scaurus thought. “Assigned to us?” he repeated, wanting to hear Styppes say it again.
“Aye.” The priest still seemed far from overjoyed; as he was familiar with it, his talent was much less wonderful to him than to the Roman. He looked at the bedrolls neatly checkering the barracks floor. “You’ll have quarters for me here, then?”
“Certainly; whatever you like.”
“What I’d like is more wine.”
Not wanting to antagonize him or seem mean, Marcus struck the seal from another jug and handed it to him. “Care for any?” Styppes asked. When the tribune shook his head, the priest, disdaining his cup, drank the jar dry. Scaurus’ worries returned.
“Ahhh,” Styppes said when he was done, a long exhalation of pleasure. He rose—and lurched somewhat; so much neat wine downed so fast would have sozzled a demigod. “Be back,” he said, and now the drink was in his speech, too. “Got to get m’gear from the mon’stery, fetch it here.” Moving with the carefully steady strides of a man used to walking wine-soaked, he started toward the doorway.
He had only taken a couple of steps when he turned back to Marcus. He studied him with owlish intensity for nearly a minute, then left just as Scaurus was about to ask him what was on his mind. Frustrated, the Roman went back to his paysheets.