The Realms of God: A Novel of the Roman Empire (The Shards of Heaven, Book 3)

The Realms of God: A Novel of the Roman Empire (The Shards of Heaven, Book 3)

by Michael Livingston

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765380357
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 11/07/2017
Series: The Shards of Heaven , #3
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 473,856
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL LIVINGSTON holds degrees in history, medieval studies, and English. He is an Associate Professor of English at The Citadel, specializing in the Middle Ages. His short fiction has been published in Black Gate, Shimmer, Paradox, and Nature.

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CHAPTER 1

The Rose-Red City

PETRA, 5 BCE

Squinting his eyes to watch the approaching Romans, Lucius Vorenus wearily settled himself down onto a rose-red rock outcropping. Behind him, its afternoon shadow leaving him in cool shade as it stretched out toward the acropolis of Petra, arose one of the rocky mountains that hemmed in and protected the ancient city of stone. In his first year here he'd climbed those greater heights, but he'd thankfully found that this lower vantage point, while still a scramble to reach along its cliff-framed ledge, was far easier to achieve. And the position was more than adequate: it was sheltered from the sun by the surrounding rocks, with clear views of both the main road north and the more secret path through the narrow chasm to the east. The perch had in time become as familiar to him as the aches and pains of a long life hard lived: he couldn't count how many times he'd labored up here in the twenty years since he and his old friend Titus Pullo had come to Petra to hide themselves, the little orphaned girl they'd raised as their own, and the Ark of the Covenant.

The mercantile caravan he was watching seemed to be crawling down the northern hillsides into the valley, its approach slowed by the winding of the road through the terraced farms and vineyards that seemed so out of place amid these arid mountains. The greenery was nothing compared to the gardens and fountains within the city's walls, of course, but Vorenus well remembered his shock when he himself had first seen Petra and found it an oasis in bloom.

No natural oasis, though. Petra, more than any place he'd ever seen, was a testament to human ingenuity. The rock walls that hemmed it in and protected it were cut through with channels that pulled the rains when they came off the rocks and down through larger and larger conduits into the hundreds of cisterns that dotted the growing city. The rainy season was short, but the Nabataeans of Petra made it last year round. It fed their crops, filled their cups, and made a city in the desert.

The Romans were also being slowed by the rudimentary nature of the Nabataean road, and Vorenus allowed himself a smile. The Roman merchants, he was certain, would be cursing the lack of a properly wrought surface for the wheels of their carts and wagons. That was the Roman way, of course: build the road to reach the destination. He'd done it himself, back in the days when he was a legionnaire. Back when he thought of himself as Roman, too.

Vorenus spat on the ground between his desert boots and watched for a moment as the moisture quickly sank into the parched dust that had gathered on the flat surface between stones. Though beneath his flowing linen robes he still kept his old gladius strapped to his side, there was little about him that felt Roman anymore. The men in the coming caravan weren't countrymen to him. They didn't speak with voices of home. They were foreigners. And like every other group of foreigners who approached the walls of this secretive city, Vorenus viewed them as a threat.

Squinting into the distance again, he tried to count wagons, gauge armaments, and guess at the number of the guards as they crept closer.

In his earlier years at Petra, Vorenus had worried at the threat such men could be to him personally — he did, after all, still have a price on his head, courtesy of Augustus Caesar himself — but as his stay in Petra lengthened to decades he had come to worry only for the threat that foreigners might represent to the Ark, the powerful Shard of Heaven that he and Pullo — and now young Miriam — had sworn to protect.

His own life, Vorenus figured, was long since lived on borrowed time.

Growing up in Rome, he had never expected to live to see much of his adulthood at all. He was born to be a fighter. His life would be the sword and the blood and the golden eagle standard of the legion beneath which he would surely die.

But he had survived. Fighting the barbaric Nervii in Gaul under the direction of Julius Caesar, he had lived when so many died. At Actium, under Mark Antony, death had somehow missed him — though down the mauled skin of his right arm Vorenus still carried heavy scars of that fight. In Alexandria, when Augustus Caesar had ordered his execution, he'd lived. So, too, had he survived ambush on the Alexandrian canal and the Kushite attack on the island of Elephantine.

Now, at the age of seventy-three, Vorenus knew that no matter what luck had bought him to this point, death would not forget him forever. No man was immortal, and there was no doubt for Vorenus that he had fewer days ahead than he had behind him. He'd had a good life.

So these latest approaching Romans were only a worry insofar as they were a threat to the Shard.

Vorenus turned to his right, looking across the southern reach of Petra to a narrow canyon that slashed southwest into the mountains, just beyond the city walls. There were beautiful tombs in that wadi, carved deep into the rock. The windows and doors cut into their facades stared back at him from the distance, black squares that reminded him too often of the open eyes and mouths of the dead.

A fitting image for tombs, he supposed, but hardly a comforting one.

Among them, not quite visible from this position, was the rock-cut tomb that he and Pullo had bought for the family they didn't have. It had been originally designed for a wealthy family who had decided to bury their dead elsewhere: its face was framed by four half columns that seemed to melt out of the stony canyon wall, and between them were three large niches where statues of the deceased might stand watch over their mortal remains. The previous owners had left it unfinished — there were no statues when he and Pullo had bought it, and the walled courtyard that was meant to be built in front of it as a gathering place for the family was nothing but a paved square beside the path up the wadi into the mountains. They'd finished the courtyard immediately, of course, seeing it as another line of protection for the Ark since the Nabataeans treated such spaces as deeply private areas. Only then did they commission the two statues that had filled the niches to left and right. They were of Miriam's parents — the secret pharaoh Caesarion and the Jewish girl Hannah, who had been the keeper of the Ark before they died in Egypt. The couple had been buried where they'd fallen, in the quiet ruins of a forgotten temple on Elephantine island. But they lived on, Vorenus often thought, in the precious girl that Vorenus himself had cut free of her dying mother. That Miriam had no memory of the faces of her parents made the statues important to him. It was cold stone, but he liked to think that the faces still had life when he and Pullo would sit with her in the quiet courtyard and tell her of the people they'd been.

The third niche in the facade of the tomb was still empty, as if awaiting the face of the next person to be buried within. That was how the Nabataeans did things, and he and Pullo did their best to make their tomb seem the same as any other in the valleys. It wasn't, of course. No one was buried there, and Vorenus couldn't imagine anyone ever would be. The large stone sarcophagus that they'd placed inside held not a body but the precious Ark that had fallen into their keeping when Hannah and Caesarion had died defending it. And when he, Pullo, or Miriam was seen close to the tomb — and it was rare that one of them was not nearby — they were not meeting in prayers for the dead but in a watch for the living.

He let his gaze fall to the temples and tombs that were gathered around the feet of the acropolis below him. The Nabataean priests were busy there, bringing offerings of songs and flesh to their pantheon of gods. Tallest among the buildings was the temple dedicated to Dushara, the lord of the mountains. Though adorned with tall columns at its front, from Vorenus' view it seemed a massive block of stone, painted a white that shone in the sun, as if it had been set down amid the city like a gift from the heavens.

The temple was, Vorenus had learned, meant to mimic the many stone blocks that the Nabataeans had carved to honor their deities: the blocks represented the mountains where the earth and heavens met, where men could reach up toward the divine. Once he knew what they were, Vorenus seemed to see the blocks — god-blocks, they were often called — almost everywhere he looked in Petra, but none were more prominent than the temple at the heart of the city.

Before he died, Caesarion had come to believe that the Shard within the Ark had first come to this place, that it was here that the Jews had found it and built it, forgotten though that history now was. That was why Caesarion had wanted the Ark brought here, brought home. What the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra planned for it once here — how he hoped to find it a permanent home in this place — Vorenus did not know.

But I got it here, he thought. I did my best.

When they'd set out for Petra in the company of the Nabataean Syllaeus — their little company always just one step ahead of the Roman armies — getting the Ark to this ancient city had seemed like it would be accomplishment enough.

Now, as Vorenus turned his tired eyes once again to the caravan that was nearing the gates, he felt more than ever that no place would ever be truly safe. Nothing was outside the reach of Rome.

Vorenus sighed and stood, stretching his legs into vigor after having sat still for too long. Knowing the mission was without hope of victory didn't mean he would stop fighting for it. That had never been his way.

An agitation of movement down in the colonnade just inside the city gates caught the corner of his eyes, and Vorenus once more found himself squinting to make something out among the antlike people busily hurrying from one marketplace to another. Petra was built on trade, and during the day the markets and the public spaces between them were a constant hum of activity — an organized chaos that would grow even more frantic with word that a new caravan was arriving. The merchants always worked hard to front their stalls well when new traders came to the city.

But this agitation was different. It felt wrong, almost like a panic.

Vorenus peered at the open gates of the city, and almost at once he saw what it was.

Cursing his old eyes, he stumbled back from the edge of the ledge and hurried for the thin scrap of a trail that would bring him down from his perch and into the bustle below.

What he'd seen was unmistakable. The glint of gold flashed wildly when it passed out of the shadows of the city walls and into the full light of the sun. How he'd not seen it before, he didn't know, but it was there now, as clear as the spots that freckled the backs of his weary hands as they steadied his scramble along the face of the cliff.

What he had seen was an eagle. An eagle of gold, perched on a staff draped in red, carried by a man riding ahead of the arriving mass of men.

It meant that it wasn't just a caravan that was coming to the secret city of Petra today. A legion was with it, too.

CHAPTER 2

The Fall of a Scholar

ALEXANDRIA, 5 BCE

Didymus Chalcenterus awoke at his desk, his cheek resting on a stack of papyrus that was — thankfully, surprisingly — free of his scribbles of ink. He was hardly a vain man, but he was vaguely aware that it wasn't the finest idea to have the chief librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria walking about with strange jottings of ink staining his face.

Didymus yawned and lifted his head from its chance pillow. His neck was tight — it usually was when he awkwardly fell asleep while writing — and so he habitually torqued it from one shoulder to another. He was pleased when the bones shifted in response with a gratifying crack.

He didn't need to gauge the wax on the little candle that burned at the corner of his desk to know that it was still the middle of the night. In the decades that he'd been the chief librarian he'd fallen asleep in his office far more often than he'd ever made it home. He knew the feel of the predawn darkness. He knew it in the tomblike silence of a building that in hours would hum with hushed whispers and soft footsteps as his fellow scholars came to work amid the wondrous collection of books under his control.

With a sigh, Didymus pushed back his stool and stood. As he stretched his arms, his body waking at last, he resumed focus on the book he had been working on: a commentary on some of Pindar's surviving poetry. Growing up in Greece he'd been fascinated by much of the ancient poet's work, and he'd always wanted to write a book about them. That he'd never done so was a reflection of his sense that his meager skills as a writer were hardly adequate to the task of approaching such genius, but of late he'd begun to feel that humility was a luxury best afforded to younger men. He was fifty-eight years old this year, and while that hardly made him an old man it did give him a sense he should write the book sooner rather than later.

Looking down at the papers strewn on his desk he saw the last poem he'd been examining. It was one of Pindar's victory odes:

Momentary creatures. What is a man?
Didymus smiled. When he'd first heard those words as a young boy, he'd thought them an exultant testament of the wonders that could come from faith in the gods. Man, he thought Pindar was saying, is nothing without the blessing of Zeus, but such a blessing could provide an eternity of glory. Later, after he'd learned of the Shards of Heaven, after he thought he knew the secret truth of the world — that Zeus had never been, that in fact the one God, the only God who'd ever been, was dead — Didymus had seen Pindar's words as sorrowful: no matter a man's triumphs and joys, his pleasures and possibilities, he would amount to nothing but shadows and dust. Man was a creature of the moment, a flash upon a world that was gone as quickly as he'd come.

Now? Didymus tapped the page thoughtfully.

Now he thought neither way of reading it was quite right. Pindar's words were neither wholly joyous nor completely sorrowful. They were the truth, of course: a man's life was a temporary thing, and all but a few would go unmarked upon the earth. But even those who would be remembered beyond their friends and family would not survive with their name.

Didymus turned from his desk to face the window behind him. One of the shutters was partially open to the night air, and through it he could see the grounds of the Museum stretching away from the Great Library, the paths and gardens lit by the stars. Beyond them were the wide streets of Alexandria, where Roman guards on patrol moved in silent groups through the darkness between the flickering fires atop street posts. There was little other movement in the city so early, though as the librarian watched he saw a few hooded figures — priests, likely — drift out of the dark and up the lamp-lit steps of the Sema, where rested the body of Alexander the Great, preserved in a crystal tomb.

Yes, he thought. Even Alexander the Great, who had accomplished more in his lifetime than any man before him, died in the end. It wasn't sorrowful to admit that truth. To admit to the fleeting chances of lives was simply to acknowledge the true nature of human existence. It needn't mean despair. Indeed, the longer Didymus had read Pindar, the more he was certain that the old poet had intended that all along: the impermanence of life was the source of its joys. The poet imagined joy as the blessing of Zeus, but that was really just a metaphor of the enduring strength of the human spirit. To be truly human was to recognize how transient life was, and in so doing to be the more grateful for whatever time you were given. A sun that shone without clouds, without night, would never be appreciated at the dawn.

"We need shadows," Didymus said, giving voice to his thoughts. "We need the shadow, if only to recognize the light."

"I agree."

Didymus jumped at the sound of another voice behind him, and he spun to see that a man was stepping forward into the light of the feeble candle on his desk. The man did not seem to be armed, and he had a kind of regretful smile upon his face. The man was younger than himself, Didymus could see, and he was wearing a dark tunic fit for travel. He wasn't one of the librarians, and no one else was supposed to be in the Library so late. The doors ought to have been locked.

"How did you —?"

"Good Apion dutifully locked the doors, if that's what you're wondering. But I know my way in. I didn't forget."

Didymus blinked, uncertain if he should shout for the guards out on the streets. How did this man know his assistant would have been the last man to leave? And what did he mean he hadn't forgot?

"You don't remember me, I think," the man said.

"It's fine. I didn't expect you to. But I did know you, and you knew me. That's the only reason they let me come in here alone."

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Realms of God"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Michael Livingston.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Dedication,
Acknowledgments,
Preface,
Maps,
Epigraph,
Prologue: The Colossus of Rhodes,
PART I: THE STONES OF MEMORY,
1. The Rose-Red City,
2. The Fall of a Scholar,
3. Water from the Rock,
4. The Boat from Rome,
5. A Mother's Love,
6. The Mount of Aaron,
7. The King and the Demon,
8. The Road to Jerusalem,
9. The Blood-Red Moon,
10. The Mount of Abraham,
PART II: THE YEAR OF FOUR MESSIAHS,
11. Secrets Untold,
12. The Mount of Moses,
13. The Holy Temple,
14. The Holy of Holies,
15. The Sixth Shard,
16. New Powers,
17. The First Attack,
18. The Garden of Gethsemane,
19. No Choices,
20. Daughter of Pharaohs,
PART III: THE GATE OF HEAVEN,
21. Gabriel's Revelation,
22. Death of a Messiah,
23. The Voice of a Friend,
24. The Shards Gathered,
25. Up in Flames,
26. The Second Gate,
27. A Leap of Faith,
28. Death and Life,
29. A Good Day to Die,
30. Midnight on the Mount of God,
Epilogue: A Book of Life and Death,
Glossary of Characters,
Tor Books by Michael Livingston,
About the Author,
Copyright,

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