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A Novel of Many Returns
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tagged : historical
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The Burning Stone

Dalmatia, A.D. 310

“Swine shit!”
Young Quintus Varrus would never forget his grandfather’s unexpected roar, for the oath was one the old man seldom used, saving it for special occasions.
Nor would he soon forget his father’s reaction to it, for Marcus Varrus froze in mid-word, shocked into silence by the outrage in the old man’s tone, and his eyes went wide in a way Quintus might have thought comical at any other time.
Listen to yourself, man,” his grandfather snarled. “You’re puling like a baby, whining and whimpering like one of your Christian priests caught out in the streets alone, without an army of guttersnipes to back him up. Straighten up and behave like the man you should be. You’re my son, by all the gods, a Roman legate, and I’ll ask you to remember that—respect my dignity, at least, even if you show no consideration for your own.”
Marcus Varrus drew his shoulders back, rigid with affront at his father’s scorn, and watching him, Quintus knew instinctively that he was fighting not to answer too quickly. Quintus knew how much his father despised his tendency to stammer slightly when he grew upset, believing others would perceive it as a sign of weakness, and now the boy held his breath as he watched from his hiding place, seeing his grandfather’s eyes narrow angrily in preparation for another outburst. Surprisingly, though, the old man waited, pointedly allowing his son the time to find the words he needed.
There were no servants in the dining room—his grandfather had banished them as soon as this latest argument began to show signs of boiling over—and none of the other three people sitting at the table even stirred. It seemed to Quintus that each of them was holding his or her breath too, eyes switching from one to the other of the two standing men.
Across from where his father and grandfather stood confronting each other as usual, his mother, Maris Antonina, appeared to be on the verge of tears, her nether lip quivering as she stared in wide-eyed supplication at her husband, willing him to keep quiet in the face of his father’s growing wrath. Quintus’s grandmother Alexia Seneca sat with her back to his hiding place, but he knew she would be wearing her usual ill-tempered glare of disapproval and he paid her no more attention, for among the multitude of the extensive Varrus family, she was the one he liked least. Quintus was far more interested in what his uncle Marius might be thinking of the current clash between the family’s two dominant bulls.
Quintus was looking almost directly at him where he sat slouched with one elbow propped on the arm of his chair, his cheekbone resting on his knuckles as he watched the familiar, developing confrontation between his father and his brother. Marius had long since learned to watch, listen, and hold his opinions close during such arguments. Quintus knew that he was right to do so, for any attempt to intervene would instantly cause the other two to unite against him. Marius was Quintus’s favourite among all his relatives, but to the rest of the family he was a disappointment and a black sheep.
Now his uncle stirred and turned slowly to look directly at Quintus’s hiding place, one eyebrow rising high in an expression that was only slightly derisive while the lid of his other eye drooped slowly in a long, droll wink. They had shared such moments before, these two, and were veterans at surviving the constant squabbling that consumed the house­hold by refusing to become involved. In fact it was his uncle who had shown him the hiding place behind a screen in the little-used side­board, having discovered it himself as a boy.
The two men had been arguing for some time, each as stubborn and unyielding as the other, their voices growing louder and more bel­ligerent, with neither man showing any sign of backing down, and now the moment had come when tempers would either boil over into fury or abate into sullen, simmering resentment. When Quintus’s father finally spoke, however, his words were far less incendiary than anyone there expected.
“I was not whining, Father.” Marcus spoke quietly, his voice almost calm, though his words emerged no less forcefully. “I merely said the way the negotiations between Constantine and the Christian leaders are developing would appear, according to the Christian pontifex, to be the will of god—”
“I heard what you said!” his father bellowed. “God’s will was what you said, by all the gods at once. Or is it the one god’s will, is that what you mean? The Christian god’s? And if that is your meaning, tell me this: since when have you or I or any of us paid lip service to the god of the Christians or to his will? Since when have we abandoned our Roman gods? Did I not fight for years for my belief in them, spilling Christian blood under Diocletian’s command in protection of our ancient deities? And since when has any man, priest or emperor, presumed to know the will of the gods? Is this Christian pontifex of yours more powerful than Rome’s own Pontifex Maximus—or even more learned than Constantine and his advisors—that he dares to make such claims?”
“The Christian leader calls himself a bishop, not a pontifex,” Marcus answered. “That error was mine. But yes, he believes he is all those things. He believes it because—”
“Hah! I know why he believes it. He believes it because he has no other choice, because his life and his livelihood depend upon it. He believes it because he has to. He believes it loudly and incessantly, day in and day out, because were he to stop proclaiming his belief from the rooftops, even for a day, he would be a dead man in very little time. He would starve, as men with nothing of value have always starved, or someone would kill him for lying to them for so long. He continues to live solely because most men are cowards and walk in fear of this god of his who might—just might—be able to strike them down from afar by some kind of sorcery or necromancy, though in truth he has no more physical substance than has Mars or Vulcan. What about you, Marcus Varrus? Do you believe this god of his has such power? What do you really know of this god, this Jesus that they worship? He’s Jewish, is he not? A Hebrew from Judea?”
“He was. At least the man who reared him as his son was.”
“Aha! The father of the god. Well, at least he’s not so omnipotent that he can exist without a father. So, then, a Jewish, therefore an anti- Roman, god. Do you believe this Jewish Christian god has power over all the earth and skies?” He held up a warning hand. “You yourself, I mean. Not his followers—I don’t care what they think. Do you believe he has such power?”
Marcus looked steadily back at his father. “I don’t know, Father,” he said finally. “If he is a god, as they say he is, then perhaps he has. But I’m not a Christian, as you are well aware. I merely work with them, as Constantine’s envoy.”
“But your wife is one of them.” Grandfather Titanius turned his head to look at his daughter-in-law, Maris, for whom he had always shown great affection. “What think you, Daughter? Do you believe your Jesus god is all-powerful?”
Quintus’s mother tilted her head high. “I do, Father,” she said quietly.
The old man grunted. “I know you do, girl, and in a strange way I envy you your conviction, for I know it is real and deeply felt. But tell me this: do you believe this meek and humble Jesus god, whom your people call the Christus, would wantonly destroy a large group of men who offered him no offence? Could such a thing occur?”
Maris kept her chin held high, not haughty or defiant, but solemn and secure in her beliefs. Quintus saw that she was frowning slightly, however, as though troubled by her father-in-law’s question, and he sensed that his mother was unwilling to respond too quickly to a query that might have hidden barbs. He himself had detected a strangeness in the deliberate way the question had been phrased. His father, too, was reacting to some sudden tension in the air, frowning in concern at his wife, then shifting his eyes suspiciously towards his father.
“Why would you ask Maris that, Father? She has no—”
“Be quiet and listen. This is important. Maris? Could that happen?”
“Could it—? Let me understand you clearly, Father Titanius. Wantonly, you said. Are you then asking me if my God would wantonly destroy anyone or anything without provocation?”
“I am.”
She sat up straighter, turning the flap of her decorative stole back over her shoulder with one hand. “No, Father Titanius, my God would never do such a thing.”
“And he is the one, true God, you believe? The only one?”
“That is what we believe.”
“There are no others?”
Maris again shook her head. “Men speak of other gods, but they are all false. God is God. A single being, although with many names. The Creator of all life.”
“And he is triune, is he not? Threefold? Father, son, and spirit, all in one?”
“So we believe.”
“And what about the threefold deity of Egypt—Osiris, Horus, and Isis—that ruled before him? Does that not give you pause?”
“There was no God before Him, Father Titanius. God is God. It matters not what names men give to the Deity.”
Titanius Varrus gave his son a sidelong glance before swinging back to address his daughter-in-law again. “Was your God omnipotent when Diocletian ruled the empire?”
Maris smiled gently, nodding her head as though humouring a child. “He was omnipotent before Rome began, Father, before the empire came to be. He made this world and all things in it.”
“Of course. I merely wanted to be sure.” He turned again to face his son, whose eyes flicked between his wife and his father. “So,” the old man continued, “if this god will do no harm unprovoked and there is no other with his supernatural powers, how can we, or anyone, explain what happened to Petronius Provo’s two cohorts in Dacia?”
For a space of heartbeats there was no response, and safe in his hiding place Quintus tensed and leaned forward, one hand cupping his ear towards the men so as not to miss a single syllable of what was to come. When his father did speak, though, he sounded mystified.
“Petronius Provo,” his father said. “I know that name, or I used to . . . Is he not a friend of yours?”
His father grunted. “He’s a dead man now. Long since gone. But he and I were close once. We grew up together. He and Diocles and I.”
Marcus was frowning in concentration. “I remember that, too,” he said. “At least I think I do. A long time ago, and there was something that happened in Dacia. I don’t remember . . . What was it?”
The older man scowled, glowering from beneath his bushy eye­brows as he peered into nothingness. “No one was ever able to say what it was,” he growled.
Quintus squirmed a little as he saw his father assume his affronted look again, peering about him theatrically as though to emphasize his disbelief. Even at the age of ten Quintus knew it was an affectation, but he suspected that his father was unaware of the mannerism, or that he used it so obviously.
“What?” Marcus Varrus said. “Do you mean that this event, involving damage or detriment to two prime cohorts in the field, went unreported?”
Titanius Varrus straightened up slightly, his eyes narrowing further as he contemplated his firstborn son with increasingly withering contempt. “Oh, you love the thought of that, don’t you,” he said, his voice barely audible. “An error of omission in the highest ranks, in the field. A missing tactical report, depriving the Emperor’s busy little fact-finders of an opportunity to pry into places they should never be allowed to see. That sets your little martial heart to fluttering, does it not?” He grimaced, before squaring his shoulders and speaking again in his normal voice, the syllables emerging from his mouth crisply and in the tones of a military report. “If your question was intended to imply that someone present failed in his duty to record the magnitude of what took place that day, then my answer is that the sole failure of any person present at the events of that day was the failure to survive.”
Quintus had heard every word, but he had no idea what his grand­father had actually said.
“What—?” Marcus swallowed. “I must have misheard. Did you say, a failure to survive?”
Titanius Varrus nodded. “That is precisely what I said. Whatever happened in Dacia that afternoon, not a single person lived to tell of it.”
“But that’s . . . that is clearly impossible, Father. Some must have survived, no matter how great the damage. There must have been at least two thousand men there.”
“There would have been, normally,” Titanius said, eyeing his son levelly. “I would even say perhaps three thousand, were one to include the usual adherents—families, retainers, camp followers, and the like. In this instance, though, all of those were marching with me in the main body, because Provo and his men were on high alert, carrying their own rations and moving too urgently and too quickly to wait for a baggage train and extra bodies. Also, we had been out there for a few months and had twice taken heavy casualties, so all told there were probably little more than a thousand men in his group. Eleven hun­dred at most. But every single one of them died.”

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A Brightness Long Ago


A man no longer young in a large room at night. There are lanterns and lamps, torches in brackets, a handsome table, tall, shuttered win­dows, paintings in shadow on the walls. He is not alone. Even so, he finds his mind turning back to when he was, indeed, still young. We all do that. A scent carries us, a voice, a name, a person who reminds us of someone we knew . . .
There are events going forward in this moment, but there is also a delay, a pause in the rush of people coming and going, and the past is closer at night.
He is thinking of a story from when he was learning the world and his place in it. He cannot tell all the tale, and he won’t. We see only glimpses of history, even our own. It is not entirely ours—in memory, in writing it down, in hearing or in reading it. We can reclaim only part of the past. Sometimes it is enough . . .

The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time. I dream of her some nights, still, but there is nothing to give weight or value to that, it is only me, and what I want to be true. It is only longing.

I remember that autumn night very well. It would be odd if I didn’t, since it set me on a different path from the one I’d thought I was on. It changed the arc of my days, as Guarino might have put it. I could easily have died. No arc at all, if so. I had images of knives come into my mind for a long time after. The one I carried, the one that had been used before my own.
I owe my life to Morani di Rosso. I light candles to his memory. He was a good man; I think it is fair to say any friend of Guarino’s had to be. Morani was chief steward of the palace in Mylasia. He had accepted me on Guarino’s recommendation. Which is why I was in the palace on the night Uberto the count, also named the Beast, was killed by the girl.
It seems necessary to say that though I was a pupil in Guarino’s school it was not because my father had any rank at all. Guarino, the best man of our time I believe, when invited to open a school at the court in Avegna made it a condition that he be allowed to admit a number of lesser-born children—clever ones, showing signs of promise—to be educated with the sons and some of the daughters of nobility.
I was admitted that way. My father was a tailor in Seressa. I feel no shame in saying that. I know what he was, I know what I was, and am. The cleric in our neighbourhood sanctuary by the great canal was the one who noticed me. I had quickness, he declared, was a well-formed, well-mannered young man, had taken easily to my letters and numbers.
Tailors in Seressa (and elsewhere) do have a little status. They enter the homes and intimate chambers of the great, conversing with them at fittings, learning their needs (not just in clothing), sometimes guiding those needs. Ours is a time when public display matters. Most times are, I suppose.
At our cleric’s urging, my father mentioned me to one of his patrons, a member of the Council of Twelve, then the cleric wrote a letter to that same man, and . . . matters were set in motion. I have a memory of my mother the morning I left—she saved a yellow bird from the cat. She chased the cat away, then turned and hugged me goodbye. I don’t know if she cried; if she did, it was after I had gone.
I spent seven years with Guarino in Avegna. There is a bust of him now in a palace courtyard there, outside the rooms where the school used to be. The school has been closed for years. Guarino is gone, my father (Jad defend his soul) is gone, many of those who mattered in my life are. It happens if you live long enough.
In that school in Avegna I lived through and left my childhood. I learned to write with skill, not merely competence. To speak grace­fully in good company and debate with clarity. To deal with weapons and the new form of accounting. To sing (with less grace, in truth), and to ride and handle horses—which became my joy in life.
I learned to address my betters properly and my equals and infe­riors also properly, and to do so with at least an illusion of ease. I was taught something of the history of Batiara and of events in our own time—though we were spoken to carefully as to that last, because certain things were not said, even at the school. Towards the end, I was helping with the younger students. I was in no great hurry to leave that sheltered place.
Some of us learned to read texts of the Ancients. We learned of Sarantium in the east, the City of Cities, what it had been a thou­sand years ago, what it was now, and how the Asharites, the star-worshippers, threatened it in our time. We heard tales of emperors and charioteers.
Those languages and stories of the past, along with access to Avegna’s palace horses, were a good part of why I stayed with my teacher longer than most. Those things, and loving him.
I had begun to think I might become a bookseller and book­binder at home in Seressa where the trade was growing, but Guarino said I was suited to serve at a court, to use and share what he’d taught me. He regarded that as part of his task, sending men and sometimes women into the world to have an influence, guide others towards a better way to be, during a time when violent men were ruling and warring through Batiara and beyond.
Time enough to make and sell books later, he said—if you decide you want that. But first, take a position where you can give back some of what you have been given here.
He’d written a letter to an old friend, which is how Morani di Rosso and Mylasia came into my life. Morani offered me a position at the court there. The Beast’s court.
We make our own choices sometimes, sometimes they are made for us.
I’ve thought often about what my life might have been had I gone home to Seressa instead and opened or joined in running a bookshop. My cousin Alviso had just started one, alongside one of the smaller canals. But Alviso hadn’t been to the celebrated school in Avegna. He hadn’t had that gift in his life. Opportunities given are responsibilities. They taught us that.
So, I went to Mylasia. There were and there are bad men ruling some of the larger and smaller city-states of Batiara, but I don’t think many would dispute that Uberto of Mylasia was among the very worst in those days.
It was interesting, I suppose it still is, how vicious men can take power and be accepted, supported by those they govern, if they bring with them a measure of peace. If granaries are full and citi­zens fed. If war doesn’t bring starvation to the walls. Uberto was a man who had sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died.
If men and women are to be killed we want that to happen somewhere else. We are like that, even as we pray. In these years, as hired armies go up and down the hills and river valleys, fighting for a city-state that’s hired them or raiding for themselves, as High Patriarchs war with half the nobility and conspire with the other half, some have seen the conflicts of the great as sweet, seductive chances to expand their own power.
Villages and towns are destroyed by angry, hungry soldiers, then sacked again a year later. Famine comes, and disease with it. In times of hard peril, a leader strong enough—and feared enough—to keep his city safe will be permitted a great deal in terms of viciousness, what he does within his palace.
There was no secret to it. Uberto of Mylasia was well known for what happened in his chambers at night when the mood was upon him. There were stories of youthful bodies carried out through the smaller palace gates in the dark, dead and marred. And good men still served him—making their peace with our god as best they could.
Balancing acts of the soul. Acquiescence happens more than its opposite—a rising up in anger and rejection. There are wolves in the world, inside elegant palaces as well as in the dark woods and the wild.
People sent their daughters away from Mylasia and the nearby farms in those years because Uberto was what he was. When young girls sufficiently appealing were not readily found, he had boys brought to him.
It was known, as I say. We’d heard the tales in Avegna. Some of the others at school, better born than I, had even joked that having women brought to them (no one joked about the boys, it would have been a risky jest) was one of the appealing aspects of power. They didn’t talk—to be fair—about killing them, just the pleasures of a night, or more than one.
Uberto never had anyone brought for more than one night. Most of his guests survived, went home, were even rewarded with coins—given that marriage would be difficult for the girls, after, and the boys were shamed.
Not all left his palace alive, however. Not all of them did.

The first way I might have died that windy autumn night was if Morani had not sent me for wine by way of the servants’ stairs when word came that the girl had arrived.
When someone was brought to the count at night, Morani took the post outside Uberto’s chambers himself. As if he would not burden another soul with what this was. He had done so for years, apparently.
That summer and fall he liked me to stay with him before and after the arrival—but not when the girl or boy came up the stairs. This had happened three times already. That night was the fourth. I do not believe in sacred numbers, I am just telling my story as I remember it.
Outside the count’s rooms Morani and I would converse of the wisdom of the past. I’d recite poetry for him, on request, while behind the door Uberto did what he did. We would hear things sometimes. Morani’s face would be sorrowful, and I thought I saw other things in him, too. Mostly he would keep me talking—about philosophers, precepts of restraint, learned indifference to fortune’s wheel. He’d drink the wine I’d brought up, but never too much.
He couldn’t protect me from knowing what was happening, only from being part of sending someone in. He did have me stay with him after. Perhaps he found it hard to be there alone. Perhaps he thought I needed to learn some of the dark things about the world, alongside the bright ones. In certain ways, I have since thought, that is the condition of Batiara in our time: art and philosophy, and beasts.
Had I been standing beside him when the girl was led up the staircase between torches, had the guards who brought her seen me with him there, I’d have been held equally responsible, without any least doubt, for what ensued.
But they did not see me. Only Morani was there to greet her gently, usher her through the door after searching her, carefully, for any weapon she might have. The guards would have done so down­stairs already, but as the palace’s chief steward, Morani was formally responsible outside that door.
I was there, however. I did see her.
I had come back up with the wine flask already, was standing in the shadows on the back stairs, out of sight of the guards and the girl, but with a view of them. And so I saw who she was.
I didn’t believe she’d have remembered me at all, had I been vis­ible, but I knew her on sight. It hadn’t been so long. And I realized, immediately, that something was wrong.
I did nothing, I said nothing. I let it happen.
Morani di Rosso’s death is on me, you may fairly say. I owed him a great deal, I liked him a great deal. He was a kind man, and had small children, and I recognized the woman and still let things pro­ceed to where they went, which included his execution and dis­memberment in the square not long after.
I have often thought that the world the god has made—in our time, at least—is not generally kind to good men. I do not know what that says about me and my own life.
We accumulate sins and guilt, just by moving through our days, making choices, doing, not doing. His is a death for which I will be judged. There are others.

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