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The Guest Star (5), Naissus

To say that all the events of yesterday were intense would be an understatement. But now that it was all over Hero felt a little excited. He was by nature withdrawn and devoted to school and education and never had the opportunity to participate in any military action, let alone be at the center of it. He never expected to witness firsthand the cold-blooded killing and efficiency of Roman legionaries. Something he had only read about in books, he had the opportunity to see with his own eyes. Lucia was couple of digits away from death and the mere thought of it terrified him all over again. Seeing her sleeping peacefully just a few feet away gave him comfort and peace. Vitus gave them last night a tent where they would take a rest after the exhausting day. They should have all day to prepare for the six days journey to Naissus.

"Hero!" He heard Vitus' voice barely above a whisper.

He quickly left the tent and saw that the Sun was already high above the horizon. They were in the middle of the military camp, just outside Lissus. There were dozens of tents around, and hundreds of soldiers already roaming around.

"There was a change of plans." Vitus was standing in front of the entrance of the tent. "We're leaving today. Wake up Lucia. The Praetorian guard are here and we are assigned to them. We leave in exactly one hour.''

"One hour!" Hero was confused. "Wait! What? Praetorian guard?" Obviously, he still hasn't fully woken up. "Imperial escort is here? Heading to Naissus? Who are they accompanying?"

"I don't know. Someone important." He turned to leave. "We will know in one hour. Be ready."

"Ready? Our travel bags was lost at the market yesterday.." But Vitus had already left.

He returned to the tent and found Lucia sitting in the spartan bed. She was a mess, with a stained dress and with her hair obviously not in a good relationship with their accommodation. He hadn't noticed yesterday because of all the excitement and fear he was feeling, but this morning he couldn't help but notice a certain scent... of seafood coming from Lucia. Then again, after the last night's swim to the rowing boat, in the not-so-clean waters of the harbor, he wasn't the best example of tidiness and good smell either.

He sat across from her. "I have a good news and a bad one." He paused, changed his expression and thought better of it. "Ok, I have no good news and two bad ones.."

"I heard." She smiled at him. "But, just out of curiosity, what do you think the other bad news is?"

"I went with Caelius last night to the forum and we didn't find our luggage bags on the market. They are definitely lost. We only have our personal bags. We have nothing to change into, and we don't even have time to wash off the smell." Hero's expression did not match the situation they were in. He was smiling.

"What are you smiling about?" She frowned at him.

"I wonder.. if your horse will like the smell of salted fish." He couldn't resist.

She took a hard and more than uncomfortable military pillow and threw it at him. Then she did something quite unexpected. She stood up, leaned towards him and kissed him softly on the cheek.

"I owe you my life, Hero." She said it with resting her both palms on his face. "No one has ever done anything like that for me before."

She was only two fingers away from him and somehow in that instant the scent of fish vanished as if it had never been there at all.

* * *

Bruttia Crispina Augusta, the young Roman empress stood in front of her two carriages accompanied by her cousin Quintia and her son Lucius she was traveling with, and by three experienced veterans from Cohors prima Alpinorum equitata, now members of Praetorian guard assigned to follow Commodus' consort on her travels. She was listening Vitus as he explained the upcoming travel. To increase speed of travel, a convoy would be formed using only horses to ride, carry loads and pull carts. Vitus' squad would be in the lead, followed by Hero and Lucia and the empress's two carriages and Caelius' squad at the rear. At any given moment, the convoy would be scouted by six horsemen, two on either side and two riding a few miles ahead.

The empress' carriages was a type of suspension wagons, the latest invention for the long road travel for the wealthy, so the violent bumps of the wheels and axles was subdued by the strong leather of the posts. Hero and Lucia came to join them directly from the Cursus' stables and approached the royal family to pay their respects and introduce themselves.

"I heard all about your struggle." The empress said in informal and sympathetic tone. She was obviously not one of those royalty members whose attitude made clear the social distance between them and everyone else. She was genuinely kind and open. "I could only imagine what you went through and how you felt." She addresses Lucia directly.

"Thank you, my empress." Lucia bowed slightly. "If it wasn't for Vitus, I probably wouldn't be alive today."

"Please call me Crispina." The empress took a small step towards them. She looked towards Vitus and smiled. "Vitus reputation precedes him. The moment I found out they are in Lissus, I personally asked for him and Caelius for this journey." She touched delicately Lucia's arm where her stola was torn and stained. "But from what I have heard, Vitus was not the only one to whom you owe the sole gratitude for your rescue." She looked at Hero. "Not everyone would do what you did, young man. To mobilize an entire army to save your girlfriend, is something only true leaders are capable of."

The way she said it, Hero wasn't entirely sure it was directed entirely at him. "Thank you, my lady." He bowed.

"Come on, shell we go?" She stepped back. "We will have plenty of time to talk more. Lucia, Caelius mentioned that your belongings were stolen?"

"Yes, my lady. I mean Crispina.." The empress was only two years her senior, and Lucia was perfectly fine with addressing her informally, but she still felt strange about it.

"Come on, you will travel with us in the carriage. There are plenty of space and I have more than I need in my luggage for you to choose from."

Soon after, the convoy was formed and the long journey for the Moesian's main industrial city of Naissus began. The road for the first twenty miles connecting Lissus and the ancient Illyrian city of Scodra was built with built-in ruts for carriages, and the speed of travel was almost the same as that of horses, the fastest journey they could hope for. Hero rode beside Vitus with Lucia's horse tied to his.

"What she meant by I mobilized the whole army?"

"Bruttia is an extraordinary woman." Vitus looked around first to make sure no one was around to overhear their conversation. "And smart. What she said was meant for you, but also for her too." He paused. "It's Commodus. Since what happened with Lucilla four years ago, their relationship is not what it was. He sees conspiracies everywhere and he doesn't trust anyone. Questions everybody. She keeps finding reasons not to be in Rome. I better not tell you about all the rumors."

"Do you believe all of it?" Hero was curious because many of these rumors reached Alexandria with almost every merchant ship from Rome. "The rumors, I mean."

"Yes." Vitus emphasized. "I have my sources in Rome. Some of their stories seem more than disgusting to me." He spurred his horse to get closer to Hero's. "On a different matter, I wanted to ask you about yesterday. Gaius Augustus Dio. Why do you think he took Lucia? And why that madman killed him."

"I have no rational explanation. He was my best friend's grandfather. He told Lucia she belonged in Rome with Cassius. He probably thought he was doing the right thing. In a devious and a crude way yes, but I don't think he would harmed her." He thought it would be best if he didn't mention Cassius' marriage proposal, but Vitus probably figured something out on his own. "Lucia told me he tried to help her after we boarded the ship. His first officer and himself attacked that madman, but they were no match for him."

The expression on Vitus's face showed that he completely agreed with Hero's explanation. After all, it's not the first time he's faced similar struggles.

"Well, these merchants.. They hire everybody without questions asked. He was probably a pirate in his former life. Or worse." Vitus looked at Hero and his bandage on the back of his head. "You were lucky, you know. If he had found something heavier in that market, he could have killed you with that punch."

* * *

Along the way there were rest stops about every twenty to thirty miles, or closer if the path was difficult or the road led over the mountains. This distance between stops was designed for a comfortable one day travel and was usually maintained by military or Cursus Publicus personnel. Or usually both. There were exactly ten such stops between Lissus and Naissus, and since the convoy was only with horses, they easily reached each station every night.

The empress and her entourage were not separated from Lucia, Hero and the soldiers and they dined together without exception every night. To speed up the journey, but also for fun, Bruttia, Quintia and her son Lucius used horses almost every day and rode with the legionaries. The suspension of the wagons, even though it helped to the certain degree, still didn't provide a desired comfort, especially on the cobblestone road, which was not perfect the entire way.

About the same time when Cohors I Cretum was stationed at Timacum Maius, Marcus Ulpius Trajan, one of the well-remembered emperors and builders from previous century, founded the municipium of Ulpiana, the only city they encountered on the road to Naissus. The city was built at the intersection of the road they were traveling on and the branch that goes directly south toward the Via Egnatia. When they entered the city, the first impression was that it was full of legionaries.

Vitus spotted a little concern on Hero's face. "Don't worry. There's no war coming or anything like that." He dismounted his horse. "Meet the regular Moesian lifestyle. You'll get used to it." 

"Then why there are so many legionaries? I thought they were located closer to the borders.. Are we not in the middle of the province?" Hero asked. "Maybe they are guarding something here? Or someone?"

Vitus smiled. "You're absolutely right. There's a gold mine only five miles that way." He pointed to the southeast.

"The gold mine?"

"And silver. Very reach ore vein. And clean. Not much of the need for a heavy processing of the ore."

Hero looked around and stopped in the direction Vitus pointed. "But I don't see any big chimneys. Shouldn't there also be forges with ore processing around?"

"Oh, they exist, and their size and numbers is something you've never seen before." He helped Hero unload Lucia's horse. "You'll see them soon. All of them are in Naissus, and this one here is only one of dozens of mines in this area. Not only gold and silver, but also iron, coal, cuprum, stannum, plumbum... Where do you think all the weapons are made?"

"I had read about the Cyprus mines a few years back in Alexandria, but had no idea about Moesia." Hero put two and two together. "So that's why the empress is here? She's inspecting the mines and the workshops?"

"But it is one of the great imperial secrets." He heard Bruttia coming with Lucia and Quintia. "I must ask you to keep quiet about everything you will see here, especially in Naisсus." Her voice turned formal. "If our enemies found out what we are doing here, especially the Goths across the Danubius, all the army we have here would not be enough."

They were the guests of Hedystus Gallus Tiburtinus, the city's Praefectus fabrum, the prime engineer responsible for the entire mine operation in Ulpiana. It was a man in his late fifties who welcomed the empress with a delegation of city officials and his family. They unpacked the wagons and luggage at his high official residence, which was a mansion physically connected to the city's Preaefect offices. After four days of travel, this was their first chance to visit a real bathroom. Hedystus' villa was furnished with all three rooms that Lucia was used to in her Alexandrian dormitory. The caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium were quite small in size, but they were magnificently maintained and the temperature transitions from hot, to warm and finally to cold were perfect.

To say that Hero enjoyed the same luxury in the open bath of the military garrison would be the biggest understatement of them all. They also had three rooms with water of different temperatures, but Hero couldn't tell the difference. It could rather be said that they were moving from a room with a cold water, to another one with a slightly colder one, and finally to a room with a freezing cold stream.

Vitus, Caelius, and their fourteen legionaries didn't seem to care, and they successfully washed away a week old dirt, enthusiastically singing the chiridia, probably the same song they had sung more than five years ago when they were engaged in a war with the Germanic tribes at the time Marcus Aurelius died.

Hero joined the party and sang with them. It helped him be a little less jealous of Lucia and her perfect bath. But somehow, it felt good, and hanging out with the soldiers was a new and surprisingly pleasant experience for him. This trip showed him that the world behind the walls of Alexandria, which was mostly located in books, and this real world were quite different and he realized that, if he wanted to understand it better, he would have to travel more and talk to real people.

* * *

At the end of the third day, after leaving Ulpiana, the convoy reached the valley of Naissus. It was almost midnight when they entered the southern outskirts of the city. The river divided the valley in half, and the residential part of the city was located entirely on the right bank of the river. In the southern part, on the left bank, the imperial workshop and fabrica armorum extended for two miles in every direction. They passed by many warehouses, as well as several forges and other workshops of various purposes.

Although it was late, the place was alive. There were many workers and craftsmen everywhere accompanied by military patrols at every intersection. The streets were well lit with oil lamps and torches and Lucia realized that she had been wrong in her assumptions. She thought that an imperial mining center would be, to put it mildly, a messy and dirty city with impure air like certain districts in Rome, especially in winter. But that was not the case at all. Instead, there were lots of trees and greenery everywhere and when they reached a stone bridge that connected two important roads, one that they had been on for the past six days and the other to Byzantium, she unconsciously put her hands to her face, marveling at the beauty of the city which she had not even heard existed until recently.

Oil lamps and torches placed every 20 feet illuminated the streets, the bridge and both banks of the river. When her horse was halfway across the bridge, she saw hundreds of fireflies swirling over the water and shore. The site was mesmerizing and she soon understood why. As they entered the residential Naissus, signs appeared that read Ludi Romani, a religious festival in honor of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, held every September throughout the empire, was underway.

"Hero, look!" She pointed the sign. "Ludi scaenici starts tomorrow morning." Lucia could not hide her excitement. "I remember those games when I was a little girl. I waited impatiently for them every summer." For a moment her expression changed. "My dad took me every year."

"When I was young, we never had anything like this in Antioch."

Lucia looked at him in disbelief. "Then, young man, tomorrow is your lucky day."

Half an hour later they arrived at the imperial villa, in the western suburbs of the city. The Cohort I Aurelia Dardanorum was garrisoned further west and Vitus and Caelius, after helping with the luggage and horses, saluted the empress and bade farewell to the veterans of the Praetorian guard.

"This is not goodbye." Vitus said walking up to them. "Unless some war breaks up, I think we will be around here for a longer period of time." He shook forearms with Hero. "Remember, if you need anything at all you will find us here."

"We owe you a great deal." Hero said. "When all this is over, we will meet again. I am sure of it."

They tried to bow to Lucia, but she got ahead of them and hugged them both. "I will never forget your courage. Thank you for everything."

After they left, Bruttia gave them a tour of the villa. She kept referring to it as a villa, but it was obviously more than that. From the courtyard, after making their way through a small flock of geese, they entered the vestibule, octagonal in shape, decorated with intricate mosaics and frescoes and clearly with a hypocaust air-heating system built under the floor and into the walls. Four luxurious rooms were built around the octagonal hall. From there, a large corridor led to a magnificent atrium with a fountain in the middle and lots of ornamental plants. The open space is surrounded by four corridors with access to dozens of rooms. Auxiliary walled-in buildings that were part of the palace included a heating system, baths and stables.

The magister officiorum, an old man with a stoic demeanor, was waiting for them in the atrium with his entourage. His name was Gallus Quintius Valens and he was the superintendent of the imperial workshop for the entire mining operation in the city and all seven mines that gravitated to Naissus. He was accompanied with the pilus prior of the Aurelia Dardanorum cohort and his two centurions.

"My empress." Gallus bowed. "It's always a pleasure to see you here again. I hope you will find the imperial palace ready for your stay. We are in the middle of steel processing, but we are ready for an inspection at any time."

"Dear Gallus, this time I am not here for inspection." After six days of riding together, Lucia was still not used to Brutia's formal tone." I am merely here to convey the production change for the winter."


"Today we traveled for more than sixteen hours. It's late and if you don't mind, I would leave it for tomorrow. After breakfast?"

"Of course."

"And please take ambassador Qian with you. I would like to talk to him about something as well."

He bowed and they all left. A full moon and dozens of oil lamps illuminated the atrium, and a calm September night finally enveloped the palace. Hero and Lucia have never been in such an environment, let alone spent the night in a large villa that is this luxurious. But they were all too tired to enjoy the atrium any longer, so they soon retired to their rooms, eagerly awaiting the next day.

* * *

Tomorrow morning everyone slept through breakfast. The muffled sounds of the city could be heard in the distance, and the morning promised another warm day at the end of summer. Hero's and Lucia's rooms were on opposite sides of the atrium and it was a bit comical when they both opened the door at the same time after a flock of geese loudly announced that someone was passing through the courtyard. A few seconds later there was a knock at the gate.

"Hero, would you please open the gate?" Quintia peered out from the entrance hall. "It must be Gallus. Bruttia will be there in just a minute."

Hero opened the small square peep-door at the front gate and the first one he saw was a middle-sized man wearing a strange garb of bright colors and a conical hat. Next to him stood Gallus with two more of his assistants.

"Please, come in." Hero opened the gate wide. "The empress is expecting you."

The imperial breakfast was nothing like the ones they were used to on the road. Everyone was sitting around a table full of salty bread, milk, fresh fruit, eggs and lots of cheese. Lucia and Hero, as well as ambassador Qian, tried to copy the manners of royalty and high officials but all three failed.

"Gallus," Bruttia changed the subject after they exchanged formalities. "I have a few decrees of emperor Commodus with me, regarding next year's production, but if you don't mind, I have something more interesting to discuss first, that these dear friends of mine have informed me of."

"But of course, my empress."

"It happened that last December a great new star appeared on the horizon in the sky of Alexandria and was visible for the next eight months every night for a few hours after which it disappeared until the next day at about the same time."

"Gods!" Gallus was first to react.

"My great-grandfather was a consul in Egypt, and my father often told me many stories from ancient people he heard from him." She continued. "The portents from the sky. Messages from gods. Severe weather and disaster warnings. Predictions of wars. Or diseases."

"We interpret these things in the same way." Gallus pointed the obvious.

"Exactly!" Lucia jumped in. "We learned at the Library of Alexandria that if something is interpreted the same way in different civilizations with different religions, for so long and for so many generations, it is most likely just something we still don't have knowledge about."

"I've seen a lot of stupidity and ignorance." Bruttia continued her thought. "Many not far from Rome. It is easy to accept unknown things for granted. Gallus, you are a Praefectus fabrum, the prime engineer in Naissus. What does your rational mind think?"

Gallus was puzzled. "You think it was something else?" He looked at Lucia and then at Hero. And then at Qian, who didn't seem as surprised as he was. "Is this why your asked for Qian, my empress?" 

"Yes." She turned slightly to face Hero." Hero found an old transcription inserted into an old Ptolemy' scroll, which appears to have originated in the Kingdom of Serica." She motion to him to find the note. "Qian Peng is not really the ambassador of the far east Kingdom, but we like to address him as such, and as a high-ranking trade representative of the Silk Road Exchange, I thought he might be able to translate the note."

Qian Peng came to the Roman Empire three years ago, after his government realized that it might be productive to have a representative here to choose the goods they would most like to trade for silk. The gold and silver ingots forged in Naissus as well as other commodities also manufactured in the imperial workshop were their prime interest. After one year spent in Rome and two in Naissus, Qian had learned the language quite well.

"But of course, anything I can help with!" He bowed again and took the note from Hero. He studied it for a minute and changed his expression several times as he tried to decipher the meaning of the text. "What I can tell you is that.. it's.. very old. These are not hànzì, the way we are writing today, but a..." He tried to find proper words. "...sort of how our ancestors wrote."

"How old?" Hero asked.

"I don't know. Maybe a thousand years. Maybe older." He stood up and came closer to Hero. "But, some symbols are familiar. This one here probably refers to a holiday. I'm not sure which one. These here are the number seven. That, I am sure of." He examined closer the middle of inscription. "These three small dots are most likely stars."

"Is there anything else you can tell us?" Lucia moved closer to Hero too. "The translation here says that a new star appeared in the sky."

"I'm sorry I can't be of more help." Qian said it apologizingly. "But, I wonder how that note got here? The Silk Road is less than thirty years old... If only..." He was quite for a couple of moments. "When I came here three years ago, I was in a company of a man who might know more about it. We talked a lot about the history on the ship. And about other things too. He's more educated than I am when it comes to things like this. But after we parted in Rome, I came here and he continued his journey to the East. He was more interested in medicine and... what's the word.. surgery and drug making than mining, and he believed that Byzantium was a better place to learn more about it, than in Rome. His name is Kai Shuang."

"Do you think, he is still there?"

"Yes. We planned to come back together. We have an agreement to meet in Rome in two years, to formalize our mission there and return to the Silk Road."

* * *

Hero was happy to find another clue to their astronomical puzzle, but he wasn't sure how he felt about traveling to the easternmost part of the empire. Byzantium was not under direct Roman control and their journey there would have been somewhat risky and they would have had to enter the city without protection. He didn't like the idea of putting Lucia at greater risk, given what she had already been through in Lissus. But separation from her was the least he wanted. At the same time, he didn't have the courage to tell her how he felt about her. Maybe when this is all over...

He snapped out of his thoughts and realized she was standing next to him. "Lucia..." He took both of her hands and looked at her resolutely. "I have no right to ask you to follow me further. It could be dangerous. I couldn't forgive myself... if... " He looked her straight in the eyes. "..something happens to you."

"I'm exactly where I want to be."She looked at him in a way that said she didn't want to talk about it. "Come on, let's go try to find Tiberius' relatives." She let go of his hands and went outside. Hero watched her for a few moments, then followed her. Judging by the honking of the geese, she was already outside.

Naissus was a compact but beautifully built city. The forum was in the center, the streets were narrow, the buildings, except for the government ones, up to two stories high. The first two blocks outside the forum had temples dedicated to Jupiter and Mars. There was also an open market surrounded by longer residential buildings and wider streets. The city expanded toward the suburbs where wealthier residents lived in single-family homes with small gardens and atriums inside. The richest lived in large villas, built in the style of urban or rustic estates, with or without agricultural land, which were located on the nearby hills north and south of the city. The northern hill was visible from the center of Naissus and had its own infrastructure.

Instead of one large theater, as was the case in Gortyn, Lucia saw here two smaller ones, with a stage up to fifty feet and room for up to a thousand people in each. Commodus' influence on the cruel games was, it seems, carried over here too, bearing in mind that the city was full of armies. Or the presence of gladiators she saw coming out of one of the theaters could be because of the Ludi Romani festival currently taking place.

On their way to region XI and its fifth section, where Hero found Tiberius's last known address in the Alexandrian records, they passed through a forum full of children. Ludi scaenici was underway and they were actively participating in theater performances together with actors and entertainers. In the past, it wasn't always like that, but in recent years Ludi scaenici has been almost entirely dedicated to farce and pantomime, and the kids loved it. The small theater built especially for this purpose in the center of the forum was small to take in all who wanted to be part of the act and laughter.

Hero and Lucia stayed for a short time to watch the play, but their curiosity soon dragged them to the eastern suburbs where Tiberius Claudius Valerius once lived, almost eighty years ago after he returned from the Dacian wars.

The street was residential and they were soon in front of the modest family domus. When he saw the shuttered windows and locked doors, Hero's hopes sank a little, but he knocked on the gate anyways. As he anticipated, no sound could be heard behind the walls.

"Maybe they are at the festival." Lucia offered.

"I don't think so.." Hero tried to peer over the wall, but it was too tall. He knocked again, this time using the iron knocker with more force, but it was obvious that no one was home.

"Are you looking for Titus Valerius?"

Hero and Lucia turned and saw an old woman in her sixties who had just opened the gate of her house across the street.

"Yes." Lucia was quick to respond. "We are actually looking for the family of Tiberius Claudius Valerius. Is Titus his grandson?"

"His great grandson." The old woman looked suspicious for a moment. "Why are you asking for him?"

"I'm sorry to disturb you, avia." Hero bowed. "I am Herodian and this is Lucia. We are coming from the Library of Alexandria in search of information about Tiberius' life, for documentary purposes."

This softened the neighbor enough and she finally changed her expression and even smiled to Hero.

"They are rarely coming here." She explained. "They built an estate not far from here and grow vines, legumes and fruit. We see them here usually after the harvest season.

"Can you point us in the direction of their estate?" Lucia asked.

"About twenty miles towards Timacum Maius." She pointed to the northeast. "You can't miss it, next to their villa is a big waterfall, to the right of the road."

"We are very grateful!" Hero bowed again.

"Thank you very much." Lucia smiled.

They turned to go when the old woman remembered something. "My son told me that someone else asked about the Valerius family the other day. He said he was from Alexandria too. Is he your friend?"

Hero and Lucia looked at each other in confusion.

"What did he look like?"

"I didn't see him. Marcus said he was like you. Age and height."

They were both confused at first, but after thinking about it, it became clear why Gaius was alone on the ship. It also made more sense why he acted the way he did. Why did he capture Lucia in the first place. And the time frame also fit.

Lucia was the first to say it out loud.

"Cassius is here!"

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