Exile in Byzantium

The Weight of Responsibility

Or, Into The Lion's Den

Cave ab homine unius libri : ‘Beware the man of one book.’ —Unknown

Standing bolt upright next to the Optio’s desk in this barracks, Gaius Marius Calidus conveys to the legion soldiers on duty as to why one of his cognomina is Cetus . . . sea-monster—arising suddenly from unknown Rome, and into command, like the monster from the depths of Mare Nostrum seizing lost ships in its jaws. If his words had teeth, the centurion on duty would have been savaged.

“Find this one nicknamed ‘captain’,” he growls through clenched teeth, barely restraining the urge to loose himself on the young propinquo soldier before him. “Have him participate in the search thoroughly, then have him report to me immediately after, no matter the result.”

The legionary salutes sharply and all but sprints from the room as a runner arrives from elsewhere, handing Marius a scroll, stained with salt, its edges ragged, but the seal still intact: Pluto’s three-headed hound reclining beneath a shading pomegranate, pressed deep into dusty vermilion wax.

He would breathe in relief if he still needed to breathe, but something nearly imperceptible in Marius’ mood shifts as he breaks the wax seal, perusing the writing within:

‘Honored uncle, adopted father, I hope this finds you and our family well in Constantinople . . .’

His eyes scan over the page, quickly taking in its contents, mumbling the words to himself on and off: ‘Egypt’ . . . ‘traveling west’ . . . ‘Augustinus of Hippo’ . . . ‘wealth of possible knowledge’ . . . ‘risk’ . . . ‘safety’ . . . ‘swift decision’.

Something about the name pricks at the back of his memory, from the scrolls and books he’s amassed over the decades and kept in careful condition. Something to do with the Christians and their One God.

But this opportunity cannot be passed up; he is clearly a scholar and time is short. Even as Marius grabs stylus and ink and begins a quick but cautious reply, the name still gnaws at the back of his thinking.

There is no time to retreat to his domus, and peruse the library. “Go with my blessing, nephew and adopted son, and may Mercury watch over you in my stead.”

With one black candle, carefully lit with extended arm, he spills legion-black wax, thick and molten, over the hastily written reply, turning his ring and pressing its seal into the wax, the Kerberos’ three heads in their different moods beneath the branches of Arbor Felix.

“Get this safely back to Egypt on the next ship,” he tells the runner, handing him enough bronze coins to make sure that it does. As the messenger leaves the room, he turns back to the Centurion’s desk, gritting his teeth at the disarray, closing his eyes and shaking his head briefly at the message from the pair of girls, growling low in his throat at the mess this ‘captain’ made of his duties—

—then falls as still as his statue of Minerva Victoria in his home’s cellar.

“Augustinus of Hippo.” He says softly to himself, barely audible at all but to the sharpest of ears.

“The bishop.” His voice is slightly louder this time, and full of a sudden intensity.

’He’s the one who wrote their Christian stories in the common tongue.’

As Marius sits back against the desk’s edge, his head tilts down in thought, arms folded over his officer’s cuirass.

‘I may have sent Lucius to the place he should be the least. May the Gods watch over him.’

His gaze falls on the optio staff, leaning against another side of the desk, its iron pommel and foot both spotted with minute blooms of rust, the ash wood shaft dry and unoiled. He reaches out, taking it in his grip. His gaze slowly raises toward the doorway leading out of the room, thinking over the evening’s hurried events, the legion’s incompetence that’s infuriated him so, the distraction it’s provided to remembering such an important name . . . and the idiocy of this ‘captain’.

Awaiting further news from runners in the city who have passed the word to get out every spare man on guard to search for Arnulf, and awaiting the return of the ‘captain’ whose irresponsibility started this all, Gaius Marius Calidus Avitus stands utterly still, gaze fixed on the doorway, the only motion coming from one arm as he raises the short staff and methodically beats its weighted head lightly into his other palm. He hasn’t wielded the staff since he himself was optio ad spes ordinum in his days with Minerva’s First Legion, before his promotion to centurion. But he can feel its handling coming back to him quickly enough.

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Zsander

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