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The Guest Star (8), Via Militaris

Parting with Valerius' family was difficult and emotional for Lucia. Developing a warm friendship with all of them, in such a short time, neither she nor Hero could have imagined. Yes, the hostage situation with the Goths sped everything up, but somehow everything was more than that. She couldn't put her finger on exactly what it was, and she knew it could just be a fascination with the life she didn't have in Rome with her own family, but tomorrow morning when they set off on their horses towards the road and Vitus waiting there, she wasn't sure that, when everything was over, returning to Rome was her only option. Leaving Alexandria was difficult, but for the first time she felt unsure of where the road would take her next.

The next stop would definitely be Byzantium and before they joined the main road, they both waved one last time to their new friends who they would definitely visit again. Vitus also saluted to Titus and they all slowly headed towards Fraxinus' forest.

"Vitus, not that I am complaining, but..." Hero and Lucia aligned their horses next to him and in front of his four legionaries. "Why Bruttia decided to go to Byzantium? Did something happen?"

"Well, yes and no. If you had asked me earlier, I'd have said that she was just looking for an excuse to be out of Rome for another month, but I'm starting to think there's more to that. It turned out that she was on her way to Philippopolis to attend a meeting with Septimius Severus and Gaius Pescennius. Secretly." Vitus gave Hero a significant look filled with curiosity. "But she decided to continue on to Byzantium after that. I think she's genuinely intrigued by your quest. She even persuaded Qian to come with us."

"Ambassador Qian? Really?" Hero was surprised.

"That would be awesome!" Lucia added. "He could help us find his friend more easily, and with Crispina we'll look more formal to the authorities."

"And he's excited too. To say the least. You should have seen him when we dropped him off at the Argentium mine, on the other side of Fraxinus. That guy loves mines and precious metals."

"He's here?"

"Yes, we'll pick him up soon, have lunch and continue back to Naissus together. We should be there late afternoon and leave early tomorrow morning. This good weather won't last long for sure. It's a three weeks trip, and just as long on the way back, probably more if we get caught in bad weather, plus the time we will spend in Philippopolis and Byzantium. I suggest you visit the market tonight and find some warm clothes."

Two hours later they turned right and climbed the hill for about twenty minutes to the place where the camp was set up in front of the entrance to the mine. The ore was delivered by numerous handcarts and sorted under long tents. Several were set for iron ore and one for silver behind which a strange white smoke could be seen.

The Legionaries didn't seem concerned about it, so Hero figured everything was normal. After all, ore processing was something he knew little about. A moment later, a Seric language was heard and Hero broadly smiled. He didn't need to know the language to understand that Qian was disappointed about something and a little angry. The languages may be different, but the way swear words are pronounced is always the same. Vitus, Hero and Lucia went straight to him.

He was sitting behind the fire and when they approached him he was throwing the contents of an iron pan onto the pile behind him.

"Something wrong Qian?" Vitus sat down on a bench opposite the fire. "Did your lunch burn?"

"Oh, no, no, no, no..." Qian stood up and bowed deeply. He was a total mess with his clothes stained and was constantly wiping sweat from his forehead, but he was visibly excited. "Vitus, remember what I told you on the way here about the silver mines?"

"That they are are never just a silver mines?"

"Yes." He sat down again on his wooden tripod. "I scratched this off the mine walls." He produces a pan full of white crystalized mineral.

"What is it?"

"We call it xiaoshi, the salt of the rock. Kai would be thrilled about it. It is widely used in medicine."

"Why are you mad at it?"

"Because of this." He took out a bag of whitish granular substance. "This is sakcharon. Also a medicine, that is produced from a certain cane plants where I came from. And in the land next to the Indus river." He pointed to xiaoshi. "I was reading in Cantong qi, the book of alchymia, that the mix of these two in ratio of three to two, would give a bombus of smoke."

"Alchymia, bombus, sakcharon..." Vitus' confused expression only intensified. "I don't know what are you talking about."

"Which of the two goes in three parts?" Lucia pointed to the ingredients. "The cave salt or the sakcharon?"

"The xiaoshi.." It was Qian's turn to show the quizzical face. "What are you thinking?"

"I think sacharon, since it's made from plants, must be pure, but cave salt can have impurities in it, and the one you've scraped from the mine walls could not be completely clean. It may contain other minerals that are not suitable for your smoke.. thingy?"

All three looked at her in awe. Qian was the first to regain his composure. "You mean, that I only have to.."

"Yes, to increase the amount of salt."

He jumped off his chair to find a larger pan and expeditiously filled it with two large cups of sacharon and four of cave salt. He looked at Lucia for a moment, and added another cup. He then carefully stirred the mixture as it melted over weak fire and a few minutes later the pan was filled with a yellowish mass that resembled melted goat cheese. He took it off the heat and poured it into a cloth. While the mass was still warm he shaped it into a thick candle and only a few moments later it solidified.

"What now?" Hero was curious.

"Only one way to find out." He took a small knife, cut a small piece and threw it into the fire. Almost immediately, a purple filament emerged from the blaze, followed by a low whistling sound and a dense white smoke spreading fast in all directions. It was so thick that Lucia couldn't see Hero sitting next to her!

It was a bit comical when everyone ran out of the smoke trying to catch their breath. The wind blew the smoke inside the silver ore processing tent, and all the workers and legionaries who were with them, immediately scattered out in panic. Everybody turned to Qian.

"Behold!" He raised his both arms in the air. "The bombus of smoke!"

* * *

The return to Naissus was uneventful and they arrived just as the sun was setting behind the slopes of the western mountains. Taberna Coriaria was located in the western part of the city and not far from the imperial villa. It was on their way to the palace, and Hero and Lucia decided to take Vitus' advise and stop by the leather shop to buy couple of hooded warm cloaks and two pairs of leather lace-up campagi shoes, with a fur lining. He was right, it was already the second part of September and in these parts of the Empire, the nights were already getting cold. Byzantium was more than four hundred miles away, which would mean that by the time they got back, November would be well underway.

When they returned to the villa, Bruttia was waiting for them in the atrium, eager to hear firsthand what they had experienced and learned in Timacum Maius. She hugged Lucia and surprisingly Hero as well.

"Vitus stopped by and briefly told me what he knew." She sounded genuinely concerned. "It was terrible what you had to go through. We definitely need to take those Goths more seriously in the future."

"Thanks for the kind words, Crispina, but now that I think about the past few days from this distance, we were in really good hands. The Valerius family, centurion Cato and everyone else were truly hospitable to us. And helpful."

They sat down at the small stone table. "Did you find what you were looking for? Vitus told me he found you in the temple of the Muses?"

Hero reached into his bag and took out the original notes they found in Timacum Maius. She took the candlestick and brought it closer to see the inscriptions better. "This is fascinating! I wonder if Qian's friend will be able to read it." She looked at Hero with a satisfied look. "I'm glad they gave the artifacts to you to take them out of Muse's. This rather belongs to the Alexandrian temples, given its historical value."

"We thought that as well."

"It's late and we're leaving early. I'll leave you both to pack your things." She stood up and call the servant. "Fausta, please help Hero and Lucia with everything they need." She headed for the vestibule but stopped halfway. "Take rest. We'll have plenty of time to talk more when we hit one of the empire's most important roads."

The empire had two long borders, one in the north, along the Danubius and Rhenus rivers, and one in the east, mostly along the northern part of the Euphrates river and further south along the deserts of Syria and Arabia Petraea. While in the interior of the empire cohorts were generally deployed in places of interest, all the large Roman legions were located along these borders. More than fifteen in the north and seven in the east. From the beginning, there was the essential need for a robust and a wide road to connect the two and when it was built more than a century ago, it was the only logical to be called Via Militaris. Wherever possible, it was twenty-five feet wide, so that even a war carriage with four horses harnessed abreast, had no trouble passing convoys coming from the other direction.

Naissus was in its middle part and on its exit from the eastern part of the city it followed the river Naissa upstream, along its left bank for more than sixty miles, before continuing south-east towards Philippopolis, the largest city of Thracia, the last province before entering the region south of the Euxine Pontus. Quintia and Lucia did not travel with them, so Lucia spent most of her time with Bruttia in her carriage. Vitus and Caelius with their legionnaires rejoined the Praetorian Guard and the familiar convoy continued its journey that had begun three weeks ago in Lissus.

"Vitus, if I may ask you something." Hero was curious. "I heard of Gaius Pescennius Niger, he is as far as I know, an imperial legate of Syria or something high up in the Syrian legions. But I've never heard of Septimius Severus?"

"They are both senators and members of Cursus Honorum, Severus is currently the governor of Lugdunum, a province of Gallia, but..." He looked conspiratorially at Hero. "...and this you didn't hear from me, there's a rumor in Rome, that he will soon be appointed to Pannonia and take control of the most powerful legions of the Empire. And to say the least, those two would be the most powerful people in the Empire, and they don't like each other at all."

Hero began to better understand the pieces of the puzzle of power in Rome. "If Niger controls all the Syrian legions and Severus gains control of the Danubian legions..." He looked at Vitus with a look on his face that said he understood what might happen next. "So if something were to happen to Commodus, these two... I mean.. It could definitely end up in..."

"The civil war." Vitus finished the sentence.

"So Bruttia is then..." It suddenly became clear to Hero that they were actually in the middle of a diplomatic crisis that could affect the future of the Roman Empire. "...on a Commodus' diplomatic mission?"

"Maybe, but knowing of Commodus and his rule so far, I'm inclined to think that this is her mission alone and that he has no idea about this. Not because she's working behind his back, but because he doesn't really care. How that man became the Emperor in the first place, I have no idea." Vitus put a hand on Hero's shoulder.

"And if she fails?"

"Honestly, if the legions went to war against each other on such a scale, it would only weaken the Empire, perhaps even start the inevitable process of its change or division. There are too many threats from many regions, especially from the north. There is also that situation with this new religion coming from Iudaea, which could be as dangerous as any war, only from within."

* * *

October had already begun in earnest when they entered Philippopolis late in the afternoon. The city was fortified and they entered its southern gate, which led them directly to the imperial villa. The city was founded on seven syenite hills, originally by the Thracians, but only after the settlement was conquered by Alexander the Great's father, Philip II of Macedon, the city begin to flourish in terms of urban planning.

Lucia and Brutia had been riding alongside Hero all day when they left the last station about twenty miles west of the city. "Remember last year's lecture about the most perfectly built cities in all the Roman provinces?" Lucia asked rhetorically. "There was a debate about how to plan everything on such a hilly terrain. They used Philippopolis as a perfect example and now I can see why. This is simply geometrically perfect. Not to mention it's beautiful."

"I heard that it is one of the few cities with a large library. Maybe we should stop by if we have time." Hero looked questioningly at Bruttia.

"We will find time." She answered, but her expression was absent and her mind was somewhere else. Hero could guess where.

The mansion was situated on one of the hills, nearest to the forum, and after half an hour, they reached its gate. Their arrival had already been announced and in front of the open gate stood a tall man with curly short hair, a beard and a darker complexion. Septimius Severus was a handsome man in his early forties, and with his darker skin resembled the Carthaginians in all their glory.

"Septimius!" Bruttia dismounted her horse and greeted the senator in a rather informal manner.

"Crispina, you are as remarkable as I saw you last time!" Septimius was sincere. "When was that? Three, four years ago?" Then he glanced behind her. "I see you are not alone?"

"Septimius, please meet Lucia and Herodian from the Great Library. They are traveling with me to Byzantium in a search of knowledge. And this is ambassador Qian Peng from the Kingdom of Serica."

After everyone had introduced themselves, they went inside. The villa was similar in size and luxury to the one in Naissus, so they found their way to the atrium without difficulty.

"He is not here?"

"No, and I doubt he will come." Septimius touched Bruttia's upper arm and led her a little further away from the others. "Niger sent a messenger saying he was delayed on a personal matter and suggested a meeting at another time in Byzantium or in Antioch."

"Good. I need more time to properly get ready for him." Bruttia was relieved. "Let's talk about that later tonight."

"No, we won't." He said it cryptically and with a slightly apologetic face.

She looked at him without saying anything, just waiting for an explanation.

"The governor of Thracia invited us to the Symphoniaci tonight." He raised his shoulders a little. "After all, in a way, we are his guests here and he said it was in our honor. How could I say no. Plus, it could be fun. He will host it at the Odeon."


"Well, that's the thing. He expects us in less than an hour." He shrugged again. "Sorry."

Bruttia made a gesture of surrender. Then she turned to the others. "Everyone, you have half an hour to prepare. We're going to a concert." She faced Septimius again. "We'll talk about Niger tomorrow at breakfast."

The Klepsydra timer, located in the center of the atrium, had lost far more water than Brutia's allotted half hour, mostly due to Qian's slowness and indecision about what to wear. Everyone was gathered around the night clock, waiting for him, and when Qian finally arrived, they headed towards the Odeon on foot, which was located in the northeastern corner of the forum. Its primary purpose was to be the representative house of the city council of citizens, but its construction was ideal for theatrical events of any kind.

At the gate, the governor was waiting for them with an entourage and a dozens' of people, gathered to see the Empress. Bruttia couldn't understand how they knew that she would be in the city today, but it wasn't the first time it had happened to her, so she didn't give it a second thought. The Odeon was small compared to the open-air theater, with no more than three hundred seats in a cavea surrounding a horseshoe-shaped orchestra, which was a continuation of the back of the stage about fifty feet long. When they entered, the orchestra was completely hidden behind a large curtain.

Septimius, Bruttia and Qian sat in the third row in the company of the governor and his family, and Hero and Lucia chose their seats five rows above them. The small theater slowly began to fill up, no doubt with respectable and carefully selected citizens of Philippopolis.

"Don't you think we should have sat with them?" Lucia leaned on Hero's shoulder. "I hope we are not breaking any protocol..."

"I don't think they would mind..." Hero was clearly nervous. "I mean.. Lucia, I.." He stirred in place uncomfortably.

"Oh, don't worry, this is also my first time at such a private symphoniaci." She gently touched his arm. "Try to relax. If they are any good, it will be magical."

"No.. It's not that..." His posture became determined. "Lucia.." He turned to her and took both of her hands in his. "Do you remember that night in Lissus, when I went with Caelius to the place where they kidnapped you? To check if our bags are still there?"

"Of course."

"Well.." He took a piece of cloth out of his pocket. "The legionaries did not allow the people to disperse until we came. I mean merchants, so I took the chance and found the one with a stall with ornaments and jewelry." He unwrapped the cloth and took out a pair of earrings that Lucia had been trying on just before they were attacked. "Here.." He gently clipped them to her ears. "I know how happy you were when you tried them."

She was completely frozen in the moment. She wanted to say something, but she couldn't. She desperately wanted to kiss him, but they were in a place where that wasn't allowed and all she could do was to just squeeze his hand tightly. Tears softly formed in her eyes as she looked deep into his and within a moment she let out a soft sob.

Speechlessly, she rested her head on his shoulder when she heard first tones of kythara and its soothing and subtle tunes. The stage curtain lifted and she knew she was where she was always meant to be.

* * *

Early autumn in Thracia has always been a mixture of warm weather during the day and cold during the night and morning. The day after the party at the Odeon was no different and Septimius took Bruttia inside to the Triclinium where a rich breakfast awaited them.

"I can't thank you enough Septimius." The impressions was still overwhelming and she was in a good mood. "That was really spectacular."

"It's always nice to see you in good spirits." His demeanor, as well as how he sounded, was clearly not as inspired as hers. "Ever since I lost Marciana, it's hard for me to be alone at events like this. The memories always come back to me."

"I am terribly sorry for what happened to her." Bruttia suddenly snapped back to reality. "I am so sorry for being so inconsiderate. It must be hard for you, surely it hasn't even been half a year since she passed away?"

"Yes." He waved away. "But, enough talk about me. At least, we had fifteen years to enjoy each other. You, on the other hand, must be in a..." He paused to avoid improper words. "...very difficult situation, to say the least."

She straighten up in her lectus. "Septimius, I..." A hint of a fear showed up on her face. "I am in a real danger. He keeps threatening me with banishment to Capri."

"What?" He straightened up as well.

"He's accusing me of what he's been doing all these years." She took Septimius by the hand. "I don't know what to do. I can't sleep at night. I'm afraid of every sound. I am scared of being in Rome."

"I heard the rumors about him and... Marcia." He got up and started pacing the room. If he had hesitated to use sincere words in front of Bruttia before, that was no longer the case. "Rome is on a brink of corruption. Commodus is destroying all the values we have acquired over the centuries. That is why we have people like Niger rising up and threatening..." He paused and sat down again to look her in the eyes again. "But he is too powerful now. The time is not right."

She didn't say anything. He knelt down and took her both hands.

"But, I will not just look at you and do nothing." The plan formed in his mind. "Commodus will not kill you in Rome, that's not his way. He didn't even kill Lucilla after she planned to assassinate him. But, your banishment to the Isle of Capri is probably inevitable. Knowing him, sooner or later, it will happen. What you really have to be afraid of, are the shadows on the island itself." He paused to let his words sink in. "Here's what I will do. I am going to deploy a squad of my best men to the island as soon as we get back and they will contact you the moment you arrive and protect you. They'll wait there incognito, for years if necessary. When you get in contact, tell them where you want to go, anywhere in the Empire and they will transfer you safely to that location. Then just wait for things to settle down."

"I will be in your debt for the end of my life." She gratefully and sincerely hugged him. "Thank you."

Unusually for this part of their journey so far, Qian showed up at the breakfast much before Hero and Lucia and when they both arrived together, everyone noticed something was different. Septimius thought at first that it was their clothes that might not have been the most appropriate for today's journey, while, as it seemed to Qian, they were somehow more silent than usual, but he didn't fail to compliment her new earrings.

Bruttia just shook her head in disbelief. She got up and headed towards her room, and when she was behind them, she stopped and hugged them both. "It was about time, you two."

"Time for what?" Qian asked with his mouth full.

It was a little awkward situation after Bruttia left, until Septimius finally put two and two together and said only one long "Oooh". Then he also got up and went to prepare for the trip with a big sincere smile on his face.

By mid-afternoon, the Via Militaris had taken them twenty miles downstream of the Hebrus river, northeast of Philippopolis along its left bank, and since they started late, they still had fifteen to reach their next stop. Vitus closed the distance to Hero and Septimius who were riding at the beginning of the convoy.

"Senator, it is getting late, and I believe we could not be able to reach Mansio Cillis, unless we stay on the road more than half a night." He addressed Septimius.

"I think this is not the option. The horses are getting tired. Is there anything closer?"

"A place called Ranilum. The road tavern. Not official stop."

"Who do we have ahead in scouting?"

"Caelius with two legionaries."

"All right." Septimius thought for a moment. "Here's what we're going to do. Hero and I are going to gallop off, find Caelius and examine Ranilum. You stay with your men and protect the empress."

* * *

Gaius Pescennius Niger was sitting on his black horse a mile south of the road waiting for a report. Not far from him were about twenty of his loyal men and two dead Vitus' legionaries who were tasked with securing the southern route and scouting the approaches to the road. His large dark birthmark was the first thing anyone would notice on his neck. From a distance, in the twilight, the contrast of the skin color of his neck and face gave him somewhat sinister appearance.

A horseman approached him and saluted. "Legatus Pescennius, Severus and another have just galloped forward and met the three legionaries. All five are now on their way to the tavern. It's close and it will probably take them about a quarter of an hour to get back, maybe less."

"What about the other two scout parties to the north and rear?"

"They are both eliminated."

"Good. This is our window of opportunity. Attack now. Kill all who resist. Spare only those who surrender."

Centurion gave the orders and soon they were all galloping in two formations, designed to attack the convoy from either side. Niger followed them from close range.

The element of surprise was crucial as was the number of attackers and the battle would probably have ended in complete bloodshed had it not been for Vitus ordering his remaining legionaries to stand down. There were also casualties on the side of the attackers, but resistance was more than futile.

Vitus and his remaining men were forced to kneel with their hands tied behind their heads. They were surrounded by Niger's men from all sides. Bruttia, Lucia and Qian were standing in front of the wagon when Niger arrived and dismounted his horse.

"Gaius Pescennius Niger." Bruttia stepped towards him. Her voice held confusion and anger at the same time. "What is the meaning of all this? Is this how you imagined a meeting with the empress of the Empire?"

He approached her silently and grabbed her hair wrapped in a bun with one hand, then he lifted her into the air and threw her violently to the ground. She hit her head and blood gushed from her nose.

He knelt in front of her so that their faces were next to each other. "No, this is how I imagined killing one." He swiftly stood up and turned his back on her. "But we'll wait for Severus to come back first, he has to see you alive when he gets close, otherwise he might get crazy ideas."

"Why in the..." She tried to get up, wiping away the blood. "When Commodus finds out what you've done..."

"He won't do anything." He didn't look at her, but he turned his head a little. "Commodus is a coward. He is only brave in a circus with wounded slaves and poisoned animals. With Severus and you dead, his demise will be sped up. He surrounded himself with the weak. He won't last a year."

She knew he was not wrong. "At least release these people. They have nothing to do with him. They are just civilian passengers."

"There will be no witnesses." He turned to her. "Now, that's enough talk." He motioned to his centurion standing next to Vitus. "Go check, they should be back by now."

The centurion gave his orders and two of his legionaries mounted their horses, but as he put his foot in the stirrup he froze for a moment, looking towards a small rise three hundred feet from the road. "What is that?"

Everyone looked where he pointed and saw a somewhat surreal sight. Тhree purple lights hovered above the rise for a short time, then suddenly lifted towards the sky reaching a hundred feet above the ground, apparently staying there for just a moment and then headed down accelerating faster and getting bigger as they got closer, leaving three white trails behind. The legionaries took their swords out, but the lights passed them with a strange whistling sound and struck the ground, one near the wagon, another in front of Vitus, and the third only three feet from Niger.

The purple lights instantly went out, revealing the arrows that took them here and in just a few moments a thick white smoke spread out and covered everyone. The last thing Bruttia saw before the smoke enveloped her was Vitus' big smile. Then she heard the familiar sound of approaching horses that galloped into the smoke and disturbed the whiteness. It took several long moments for the smoke to clear enough for her to realize what had just happened.

Caelus and his two legionaries surrounded Lucia and Qian and targeted Niger's men with drawn bows and arrows, while Hero was untying Vitus and others. Pescennius Niger was kneeling under the pressure of Septimius' full body, who was standing behind him and firmly holding his left arm behind his back, while at the same time held the gladius tightly next to Niger's throat.

It was a stagnant position, considering Niger's legionaries were three times as many, but they didn't dare to do anything because of his impossible position.

"Tell them to back off." Septimius' voice was firm and decisive.

"And then what?" Niger has not shown any weakness. "To let you kill me that easily? That's not going to happen."

"You have my word. If they throw their weapons down, you can leave with them." Septimius squeezed his arm more, but Niger did not flinch. "And you and I will meet some other time with no civilians near by." Then he put away his sword, let go of his arm, and kicked him hard on the ground. Niger ended up face down, but quickly rolled onto his back.

Septimius crouched down to face him.

"Or we all die, here and now."

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