In ancient Rome, a poor philosopher races to rescue his kidnapped lover before she is abused by the sinister Christian cult
The son of a wealthy Roman family, Marcus gave up the prestige and riches that were his birthright to devote himself to philosophy. His noble mind attracted Tullia, a Senator’s daughter whose father wanted her to have nothing to do with the penniless intellectual. The news that she is to marry a prosperous merchant shatters Marcus, who goes to her house, hoping to plead his case, only to see her attacked and abducted by disguised ruffians. That she was kidnapped is tragedy enough, and it gets worse when he learns who took her: the sinister Christian cult. He knows not what vile rituals they will expose her to, and he does not want to find out. His lover in danger, the philosopher must turn warrior before it is too late. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Barbara Hambly, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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Search the Seven Hills
By Barbara Hambly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Barbara Hambly
All rights reserved.
He [Nero] inflicted the most exquisite tortures on this class well hated for their abominable practices and called Christians by the mob. Christus (who gave them their name) was put to death in Tiberius' reign by the procurator Pontius Pilate; but the mischievous superstition, though momentarily checked, broke out again not merely in Judaea, but in Rome itself, where all things foul and shameful find a welcome and a home. So arrests were first made of all such as pleaded guilty; and then, on their evidence, a vast number were convicted not so much on the charge of incendiarism as of hatred for all mankind.
Distantly, the slap of sandals and the miscellaneous jingling of leather and brass echoed in the canyons of the narrow streets. It was the quiet time of evening, the eleventh hour of the day when most people were finishing their suppers and the few shopkeepers still open were putting up their shutters for the night; here among the elite shops and wealthy homes on the Quirinal Hill it was quieter still. The noises of Rome's center seemed to lie far off, like a noxious sink of sound.
The young man leaning in the deep-set doorway of a modest apartment building could hear the approach of the litter quite clearly. It was still early enough that they might not have the usual entourage of torchbearers and an armed guard. If they were coming from somewhere close—this side of the Forum, for instance—they wouldn't, but the gods only knew where she'd been. Had he been less of a philosopher, he would have prayed for this to be so, but as it was, he stoically prepared to accept whatever circumstances for the meeting Fate should choose to lay upon his bony shoulders.
Fate appeared to be in one of her pleasanter moods this evening.
At the curve of the twilit street, the chair came into view, pale curtains fluttering in the summer gloom. The houses were tall at this point, and the brilliant gilding of the sunset had faded from their brick-red roof tiles some quarter hour ago. Somber dusk filled the lane, azure and smoky purple, but even so the chair was recognizable as belonging to J. Tullius Varus, prefect of the city of Rome and, now that the emperor Trajan had resumed his campaigns in the East, one of the most powerful men in the city. It was borne by two sweating Arabs and followed by a middle-aged Greek slave laden down with parcels, but it was otherwise alone.
From his hiding place, the young man watched it approach, prey to overwhelming shyness. He wondered if she'd even deign to speak with him, or if it was she at all—he'd look tremendously silly if he hailed the occupant and it turned out to be her mother. He wondered why a perfectly adult philosopher of twenty-two should feel this helpless dread of a meeting with a girl of sixteen; a girl, moreover, whom he'd known since they were both children. It also occurred to him, absurdly, that he'd forgotten to comb his hair.
It was with a curious feeling of exposure that he stepped from the shadows of the doorway and stood, paralyzed and mute, in the gloom of the lane.
The white silk of the chair curtains moved. The chair came to a halt at his side.
Miraculously, he found his voice. "Tullia?" He cleared his throat. "Tertullia?"
The curtain slid back on its gold rings, each ring the perfect curve of a leafed tendril of vine. Vines were worked into the white silk, too, and the pattern of them laid a soft moire of shadows on the small, rather elfin face of the girl within. He saw she'd been crying, but she said in a perfectly calm voice, "Hello, Marcus."
To a philosopher, grief and joy, fortune and death, should all be equally acceptable. But the red eyes and puffy nose evaded his philosophic armor and pierced his heart like a javelin. Forgetting his carefully prepared congratulations, he blurted helplessly, "I'm sorry! I came as soon as I heard!"
Her breath caught in a laugh that was perilously close to a sob. "Oh, Marcus, the betrothal was announced a week ago! You must be the only man in Rome who hadn't heard."
It was a fair hit, and there wasn't a thing he could say. He looked so forlorn that she reached out her hands to him. "My poor Professor, I should have known you'd be so wrapped up in your books that you wouldn't hear about it. But I'm glad you've come. I'm so glad."
He clutched her hands to his breast, but the technical difficulties of embracing someone positioned in an unstable vehicle slightly higher than one's own center of gravity defeated him. Besides, there were the bearers to think of, who might or might not know Latin, and the slave, who certainly would. "Tullia, I heard about it yesterday. I came to see you that same evening. Your father was gone ..."
"He's in Sicily," she whispered, her fingers tightening over his hands suddenly, as though she feared he would run from her. Then she broke off and looked around quickly. "Hylas? Why don't you take that on home, please?"
The slave bowed. "Of course, mistress." He trotted away up the street, his wide shoulders briefly washed by the light that fell from the windows of the apartment houses on both sides of the street. Then he turned a corner and was gone. All about them the lane was still, the last of the shopkeepers having bolted up their shutters and gone inside. From the little lofts above the shops the ubiquitous scent of porridge and onions floated, mingling with the cooling dust smells of the lane. From the rustling gardens farther up the hill and the trees around the spacious town houses of that old and elegant neighborhood came the sleepy twitter of nesting birds. In that blue deepening light Tertullia Varia's face looked fragile and pointy, as though she had not slept, and very young in spite of the sophisticated masses of symmetrical curls that framed it. Earrings in the shape of bronze lilies twinkled among that dark profusion like autumn flowers on the forest floor.
"Father will be back at the end of July," she continued softly, "when the new city officials are appointed, for the inaugurations and the last meeting of the Senate."
"So nothing can be done until then?"
She was silent for a moment, her slim fingers light on his, then tightening suddenly, as though to feel the shape of his big awkward bones. "Exactly what do you think can be done?"
Taken off-guard, he could only gape.
"Chambares Tiridates is rich," she went on. "Your offering for my hand won't make him any poorer. It won't make you anything other than a penniless philosopher who spends all his time between the library and the schools of philosophy in the Basilica Ulpias."
He gulped and found his voice. "Your father can't seriously contemplate marrying you to—to some fat Syrian shopkeeper!"
"Tiridates isn't a shopkeeper. He's the wealthiest importer in Rome," said the girl gently. "And more than money, he has political power, power among the Syrian and Persian merchants—"
"Your father has all the political power he could possibly want!" cried Marcus. "He'd have to be a megalomaniac to want more!"
"Power's like milk," Tullia said in a tired, ironic voice far too old for that thin elfin face. "It goes bad quickly. Father needs money; he needs popularity; it isn't enough that a man be good at his job. You know that. To keep power, a man has to put on a good appearance, have clients at his beck and call, give splendid dinners for his friends, sponsor games—"
Outrage made his voice squeaky. "Stupid, bloody, vulgar spectacles—"
"Marcus." She released his hands, caught his face between her palms, her fingers fragile and cold among the soft curls of his light-brown hair. He gazed up at her helplessly for a moment, remembering suddenly that even when they were children, Tullia had been the one to handle the logistics of their scrapes.
"My poor Professor," she whispered. "Don't you know how things are done? Don't you know that men who have power will keep it, no matter what it costs? Don't you know that power is based on the masses, and that the masses are crude, and vulgar, and stupid, and vicious? Don't you know that no matter how perfect, how beautiful were the ideals of the ancient republic, our wealth comes from empire and that empire is mostly Persian and Syrian and African, and we can't afford to ignore that? Don't you know we must move with the times, or die?"
"I know it," replied Marcus unhappily, taking her hands again, "but it doesn't mean that I cannot fight for the philosophic ideal."
"Father would never let us wed."
"He's a Roman," Marcus said simply. "For all he's a politician, wouldn't he rather see his daughter marry a Roman, rather than a—a—"
"As of last year," pointed out Tullia, "Tiridates has been a Roman, too."
"And in any case it might be different if the Roman were wealthy, and powerful, and could maintain a wife in the princely comfort that Father expects for his only child. It wouldn't be some"—her voice took on Tullius Varus' rich rolling accents in an uncanny mimicry—"some worthless wastrel whose very father has banished him from the ancestral roof."
"That isn't true! I left of my own accord!"
Tertullia only looked at him, pity in her dark eyes.
"And besides," continued Marcus lamely, "my family's wealthy enough to suit him—or it should be."
"But you yourself live like a pauper. Marcus, I know why. I know it's by your own choice. I know you're committed to a life as a philosopher, and that's what you care about." Her voice shook, and she tightened her full, too-sensitive lips, as though to control it. "He wouldn't understand."
"Do you understand?" He gazed pleadingly up into her face. Both of them had entirely forgotten about the two chair-bearers, who stood with the patient stoicism of slaves in the uneven pavement of the street that was now almost wholly dark.
Her face was almost invisible in the shadows of the chair curtains, but her earrings glinted as she turned it aside. "No," she said in a flat voice. "I don't understand the life you lead. And anyway we shouldn't suit. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to speak with you—"
"Stop it!" he cried despairingly.
"I mean it," she insisted, her voice breaking.
"Tullia, please, I'll mend my ways. I'll go back home, I'll leave Timoleon's classes, I'll learn to manage the family lands ..."
The chair swayed under the angry jerk of her body. "Don't you dare, Marcus Silanus! Don't you dare go crawling back to that—that selfish little shriveled-up raisin of a father of yours! What kind of philosopher are you? I'd never speak to you again if you did that, and I don't care how rich you became!" She wrenched her wrists free of his grasp, and he was too startled by this outburst to hold them.
He began, "We could wait ..."
"Wait for what?" she sobbed. "I'm sixteen already! All the girls I went to school with are married and some of them are divorced! Marcus, it's no good," she went on, her voice cracking and raw. "Tiridates wants the wedding to go through as soon as Father gets back from Sicily I've spent the day with his horrid sister buying my bride things and it's no good, Marcus."
She was crying again. His heart torn with compassion, he reached to embrace her, calling her by her childhood nickname, "Tullia, no, there has to be some way ... Tell them to put down this wretched chair, by the gods!"
"No," she gulped, drawing back, "No. You know he won't listen. What good would it do us if he married me to Tiridates by force? And he'd do it, Marcus. With the elections and the new appointments coming up, and he's already planning to give games next year ... I think he'd do anything." Her voice had turned suddenly thin and forlorn, her tears shining like quicksilver in the deep shadows of the white curtains. She whispered, "Marcus, do you love me?"
Thwarted of an embrace, he kissed her fingers passionately. The slaves continued to stare bleakly off into space. In the blue darkness of the summer evening they were alone, but for the bearers and another slave, whistling his way along on the other side of the street, bound on some errand of his master's. If he noticed the scene at all, he had the good manners to pretend he didn't.
"Marcus, listen." Tullia's light, soft fingers touched his uncombed hair. The silk of the litter curtains stirred in the breeze and touched his cheek like the kiss of wind-spirits. "We can't do anything now. But I can send for you—after the wedding." Her voice was low, excluding the chair-bearers (who might not have understood much Latin anyway). "Will you come?"
"What?!" At her furious signal he dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper. "What? You mean you're cold-bloodedly planning to deceive your husband ..."
"Oh, don't be such a baby!" she hissed furiously, thrusting shame and sorrow aside by the more convenient emotions of anger and scorn.
"Baby?" he whispered back. "You say 'baby' when you sit there, practically on the eve of your marriage, plotting an affair before the knot's even tied!"
"Don't pretend you don't know that it's done! Everyone does it!"
"That's no reason for you to swell the ranks of adulteresses!"
Her hand lashed out at him in an inexpert slap that all but overset the litter. Marcus caught her as she swayed; the bearers compensated for the sudden swerve without a flicker of expression. Tullia pulled violently away from his steadying grasp. "Take your hands off me, you—you philosopher!" she raged. "You'd put your own stupid priggish morals before our happiness ... Our happiness! Your happiness, I should say!"
Marcus could only gape at her in inarticulate outrage, his hand to his cheek, which was not stinging nearly so badly as was his self-esteem.
"You'd cause trouble with my father about my marrying a foreigner, which is something that can't be helped, but just because of some silly vows ... "
"No vow is silly if you're going to have a workable human society!"
"Human society!" cried Tullia, weeping afresh, though not, if either of them had been old enough to know it, with anger at him. "My own father is selling me as a slave, practically, to some fat Syrian who'd sooner cuddle you on his wedding night than me, and all you can do is prate at me about human society! I hate you, Marcus Silanus!"
"Move on!" she sobbed wrathfully to the chair-bearers.
The bearers had begun to move off with their loping, professional stride. Tullia slued around in her chair and screamed at him, "Go away! Go back to your dirty old books! I never want to see you again!" And with a jerk she pulled the curtains shut.
"Tullia, listen!" Marcus broke into a run to catch up and tripped over the flapping ends of the toga that marked him as a Roman citizen come of age. He landed in a patch of mud and fruit peelings, and by the time he'd scrambled drippily to his feet, the litter was turning the corner with practiced neatness, into the street that led up the hill to Consul Varus' town house.
Marcus was gangly for all his height, and a bookish boyhood had given him no great turn of speed. By the time he'd reached the corner, the Arabs were far up the street with their burden, and where the street turned, at the crest of the hill, he could see the walls of the house, creamy white against the gloom, the dark trees of the gardens spangled with light from the courts below, like firelit smoke. Even at this distance he could make out two forms in the gold rectangle of the open door: the slim dainty shape of Tullia's mother, Lady Aurelia Pollia, and, dark and blocky behind her, a big man in the purple-bordered senatorial toga whom he knew for the praetor Priscus Quindarvis, Consul Varus' adopted cousin and political running dog.
They would be waiting for her, having evidently expected her back earlier than this. In fact Quindarvis had said something of the kind when Marcus had spoken to him earlier in the afternoon, when he'd first come inquiring for Tullia. He had had some notion of running after the litter, of calling to her to stop, not to become one of those sleek worldly women whose loveless marriages were sweetened by cheap and changeable loves. But he couldn't do it, not with her mother listening—not to mention a problematical uncle and an unknown slave and the chair-bearers (if they knew Latin). So he could only stand, panting, at the corner of the street, as she receded from him. He thought, I have lost her, and despair closed over his heart.
When the gang of men emerged from an alleyway halfway up the street, blocking the litter's progress, Marcus' first thought was only a kind of mild surprise that so many would be abroad so late. The litter-bearers stopped, expostulating; then in the lamplight that filtered from the distant open door Marcus saw that the men carried clubs.
Excerpted from Search the Seven Hills by Barbara Hambly. Copyright © 1983 Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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