Crispus’ torpid body, a jagged length of hardened ash wood still transfixing his heart, thuds to the ground heavily as Gaius drops it at the foot of the pomegranate in his garden. Almost imperceptibly, the dark, tangled roots of the tree begin to draw back, the leaves nearly trembling as if in a faint breeze.
Gaius regards the pale, silent body before him, shaking his head slightly in disapproval, speaking as if Crispus could see or hear him. The house’s servants are all abed, far from the arboretum.
“I would have gladly aided you, had you been true,” he murmurs, drawing the short, broad-bladed pugio from his belt. “Rome could have been restored in some form.”
He lays the edge of the dagger’s blade against his palm, making a quick, deep slash, barely even noticing the sting. After all his battles, his time among the dead, and now the attempt Crispus and his friends in the aves made at killing him—their blades, infused with spells and blood, left hardly a trace of their passage through his throat and ribs—nothing so minor can harm or even discomfit him.
“But now I know.”
He tosses the dagger to one side, the blade clattering as it skids across the flat stones of the garden path, and massages his palm, urging the vitae within to spill across Crispus’ expressionless face, trickling into his slackened mouth. A few drops darken the roots and trunk, and the tree quivers as if shaken to dislodge its fruits.
“Now I understand.”
Gaius plants the sole of his boot against Crispus’ body, giving it a shove, and the ground gives way fully, letting his staked corpse slip beneath the earth and into the embrace of the tree’s roots, which begin to weave together, drawing over the soil in almost unseemly haste.
“You are not Rome. You never were Rome. But you will serve Rome.”
The earth is quiet and still once more, but Gaius can still just barely sense the presence of Crispus buried beneath his feet, the roots of his tree weaving around and through the torpid body, like a sparrow impaled on a thornbush by a shrike.
Elsewhere, he can still feel the waiting bodies of the sleeping Julii, safely locked in their sand-and-natron-filled sarcophagi beneath his study.
“And I—and those like me . . . are Rome.”
He turns his gaze to his palm. The gash made by his knife is gone as if it never happened, the only sense that his blood was spilled coming from the growing thirst in the part of him that wishes to join the lemures, the hungry mindless dead.
“You were a slow learner in life, Crispus—and in death.”
Gaius picks up his knife from where he cast it earlier, the blade itself free of blood as well.
“But I will return.”
He gives it a cursory inspection, before re-sheathing it on his belt, as he continues talking as if lecturing a contubernium of poorly-trained soldiers.
“And I will teach this lesson as many times as I must, until you understand it.”
Reaching into the pouch on his belt, he pulls out the shard of engraved and glazed pottery, and the blade wielded by one of the aves, its steel still darkened with the smeared VII of the man’s blood.
“After all,” Gaius finishes, as he turns to take the objects to his study, to prepare a message for Violea, “we have plenty of time . . .”