Exile in Byzantium

411 A.D.: An Appointment in Serdica

What's a Little Arson Between Friends?

• • •

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
Those dying generations at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas.
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

—“Sailing to Byzantium,” W.B. Yeats

• • •

The caravan has traveled ever east—up through Italian lands and across Gothic territory toward Byzantium. Even after all these months, they can barely believe that the Eternal City has fallen to crass barbarians, much less that the Camarilla is no more, the Julii almost entirely destroyed. With Nocturna murdered by the insane mortals who call themselves Cainites, the only Roman Julii known to still exist are those carefully wrapped, warded, and stored deep within Gaius’s belongings. And . . . Tiberius, who continues to be beset by the restless and relentless shade of Hostilinus, as well as the altogether too familiar strictures of the Morbus Curse.

One night, as the mortal members of the caravan retire and the undead rise to feed, Mio comes to Gaius’s camp. She tells him that she has interesting news from her people in Alexandria. While it is known that a few decades ago the Christian scum burned the city’s world-renowned library, all may not be lost. It seems that the city’s undead elders had sent ghouls into the burning library to rescue the priceless scrolls and carry them down into the vast Alexandrian Necropolis. Ghoul after ghoul was burnt alive or smothered by smoke, but relentless (and expendable) as ants many were able to return with armloads of papyrus, skins, and even tablets from antiquity.

She plans to take a fast ship home to see what can be learned of the Owls and how to fight them. She asks a mighty favor—that she might bring not only Gaudens but also Lucius, as the two scholars besides Gaius (and the torpid Sabina) most likely to understand the rich but fragmentary texts. Gaius is sore put to grant this wish, hating to lose his nephew’s company, but he realizes that this is, in fact, the young man’s duty. And that perhaps some of his reluctance is his own yearning to join such an adventure. With heavy, if unbeating, heart he tells the old Avis and his young apprentice to accompany Mio, and to send a messenger as soon as they have any news. As they leave, he impulsively unbuckles his sword and gives it to Lucius, telling him to wield it wisely—to make old Decimus, dead these 80 years, proud wherever in Elysium he may rest.

Next, Agata comes to him, asking if she and Gallix might beg his permission to go north rather than east with the caravan. A stranger in Rome, she will also be a stranger in Byzantium, and she yearns for her own people, her own gods, if they will have her. Gallix receives Tiberius’s reluctant blessing for this mission, provided she leaves their son behind, and the two women leave, bearing only a few belongings between them. Gaius asks them to send word every so often, and Agata reminds him that, as far as they know, their life may be eternal. Thus no doubt their paths will cross again.

The road is scarecly populated and Gaius elects to stand guard rather than indulging the urge to feed. Violia makes use of her barbarians, so only Tiberius must roam the countryside, seeking a diseased source. He manages to find just such fodder in a squalid camp of refugees from Rome, and the rest of the night passes uneventfully.

• • •

About a month later, the group begins to see signs that they are approaching not just a settlement, but a major city. Consulting maps and memory, they realize that Alexander of Macedon’s old capital, Serdica, lies not far ahead. The group’s mighty wagon train sets up camp some distance from the city walls, to avoid alarming the local populace. The next night, as soon as the sun has dipped below the mountains, Gaius, Tiberius, and Violia—accompanied as ever by one of her barbarians—approach the city’s gates with no small trepidation.

They are met by members of the local Legio, and brought before the city’s Senex. The elders quiz them carefully about rumors of the fall of Rome, and of deadly birds on the wing. They also ask about some reports of injudicious feedings along the roads, leading to possible trouble with the locals. The coterie is genuinely confused by this (after a quick but telling glance at Tiberius). They are examined by a Theban council member clearly gifted with high levels of Auspex and declared to be truthful in their statements. They are thus granted one night’s feeding rights at the massive Ampitheater of Serdica, famed for being almost as large and grande (and riddled with sin and vice) as Rome’s Forum before the fall.

Gaius is starving but manages to stave off frenzy while drinking and gambling with a supporter of the rival Blues. The Greens win at first, but are at the last beaten soundly. As he and his companion stagger off (one truly drunk, the other merely reeling from hunger), he feeds deeply from the man, becoming drunk and reckless himself.

Meanwhile Violia pursues a more nuanced strategy, using Cedric to lure ladies of the evening into a compromising position where she can drink from them. She notes that the two they select are dressed more finely than one might expect of ladies working the crowds at a chariot race, in beautifully woven and dyed silks.

Tiberius, compelled by Hostilinus’s curse to seek out diseased prey (and castigated by a screaming voice in his head, like a migraine of morality), finds a pock-marked but still pretty whore named Britta. He feeds deeply from her and then, as she slumps to the ground, decides almost on impulse, to take her with him as a reliable source of tainted blood.

The three Propinquii and various assorted barbarians, conscious or otherwise, begin their journey on foot to the distant caravan. Out of nowhere, they are set upon by mortals, apparently bent on robbing the travelers. The group (despite Gaius’s deeply intoxicated state) fends off the attackers, managing to leave one alive and unconscious for later interrogation. They relax a bit, sure the fight is over, when one last attacker flings himself like a berserker from a nearby overhang—and is picked off in midair by a umistakably Sassanid arrow.

In a swirl of silk and a cloud of myrrh, Nadzir steps from the shadows, an apparent if unexpected ally. Raising a perfectly plucked eyebrow at Gaius’s state, he turns to greet Violia, making it clear that he and Drusilla have parted ways, and seemingly not on good terms. (Violia resists noting that Drusilla is never on good terms with anyone but herself or her current patsy.) He reminds them of his friendship with poor Nocturna, and intimates that he is acquainted with her sire and can make introductions. Knowing the suspicion that tends to swirl around strange Propinquii attempting to establish themselves in a new city, the ever-politic Violia makes a quick decision. Taking his proferred arm she says, graciously, “What’s a little arson between friends?”, and strolls with him towards the wagons.

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