Skip to main content

The Guest Star (9), Byzantium

Returning to Philippopolis, after only a few hours of sleep, was less risky than if they had continued in the same direction that Pescennius Niger and his legionaries had taken, which led east towards Byzantium. Vitus and Caelius had lost seven legionaries and with two veterans from Praetorian Guards who were also killed in the first wave of the attack, they had no choice but to return to regroup and reconsider the smartest way to proceed. Last night it took them three hours to bury the dead, and after a short rest, they started back before dawn with two badly wounded soldiers who had to ride in the empress's carriage. It was already night when they arrived at the imperial villa.

Bruttia was sleeping restlessly and when the first signs of light finally appeared, she got dressed and went out into the atrium. It was cold, but she didn't notice. Hero and Lucia were already there in their warm clothes accompanied by Qian. The three of them stood eating breakfast, obviously talking about everything they had been through yesterday.

"Good morning everyone. I really hope you slept better than I did." One look at their faces told her that was almost certainly not true. The young couple had been through a lot in just a few weeks, both good and bad, but she was genuinely worried about Qian. Yesterday, after it was all over, even though he was trying to keep his composure, it was obvious that he was more shaken than anyone else. If it wasn't for his bombus of smoke, they would all be dead and maybe that fact alone was the only thing that made him push through Niger's attack and after.

"How's your wound, Crispina?" Lucia approached her to check on the still large swelling on the right side of her face.

"Considering the alternative, this is nothing." She took a piece of sourdough wrapped around goat cheese from the breakfast table. "Septimius is not up yet?"

"Actually, he went to the garrison to check on the wounded legionaries." Hero joined her at the table to refill his plate with more bread. "He woke me before dawn. He thinks we might leave soon, maybe even today. He said he would be back by breakfast."

"To leave where?"

"He didn't say."

Bruttia didn't know what was going to happen next, or what should be done about the whole situation. But one thing was certain, Gaius Pescennius Niger made it clear what his ambitions were, and the very fact that he failed in his intention to kill his competition, all diplomatic activities seem to be slowly but surely winding down. Returning to Rome and attempt to unite the corrupt establishment and to reason with Commodus, now seemed the only option, but Bruttia was slowly losing faith that anything could be achieved through diplomacy and that military conflict was, sooner or later, inevitable.

She also wanted to speak with Hero and Lucia and dissuade them from further traveling to Byzantium, in light of the danger that loomed over them all, but the moment she changed the subject to their quest, the gate opened, and Septimius entered, accompanied by Vitus and four of his legionaries, whose faces she already well remembered. If she wasn't, she wouldn't have recognized them at all, because they were all in civilian clothes.

"Septimius!" She didn't understand. "Where's your senatorial attire? Why are you all in..." Realization slowly cleared her face. "You decided to continue the journey? But why?"

He went to the table and asked Vitus and his men to help themselves as well. "I have to, I promised to be in Antioch by the end of the month. It's a private matter.. Don't ask."

"But it's the Syrian capital, he will be there!"

"Doubtful. The legions are further east in the desert, near the borders. I bet he'll spend months traveling from one to the other to get the support of all the them. It is over seven hundred miles from the southernmost to the northernmost legion." He touched Bruttia's upper arm, with his mouth full. "Don't worry, I'll take a ship in Byzantium or Perinthus and go there by sea. Besides, I'll be in town for two days at most."

"What's in Antioch?"

"Тold you. It has nothing to do with Rome. But if it pays off, I'll tell you everything next time we meet." He put what was left of his breakfast back on the table and gestured towards the others. "Hero, Lucia, Qian, please come closer." When they did, he regained his senatorial composure, though dressed more like a Cursus Publicus official, he didn't look as authoritative as usual.

"Vitus and his men will accompany me on an incognito trip to Byzantium." He turned to Bruttia. "Asellius Aemilianus is in town." He was governor here at Philippopolis, in the time of Marcus Aurelius, but Commodus removed him to Syria. I think he is running for a new governor of Asia and if he succeeds, we will need him on our side. I will talk to him before I sail to Syria."

He addressed the entire group. "Here's the plan. Crispina will take my escort, with whom I came here, and go via Serdica to Thessalonica, where my ship is waiting, and sail to Rome." He spoke directly to Bruttia in a lower tone. "Cаelius will go with you, Crispina, I spoke to him last night and on your way to Rome, he will leave the ship and with a detachment of my best men go to Capri and wait, as I promised."

She completely left the formality, came closer to him and, and by touching his hand gently, thanked him, barely audible. He only nodded and then pointed to Hero. "You three, it will be your choice, to go with the empress back to Rome, or to go with us to Byzantium."

Hero looked at Lucia and then Qian. "We already talked about it before breakfast. We are so close now and it would be a shame not to finish what we started. We will go with you to Byzantium."

* * *

The Cursus Publicus had only one regular weekly convoy to the provinces east of Byzantium. While the post offices usually used ships to serve the four most distant provinces, Aegyptus, Iudaea, Arabia Petraea, and Syria, the six surrounded by Mare Aegaeum, Mare Nostrum, and Pontus Euxinus, from Asia to Cappadocia, depended solely on shipments by road. Unfortunately, they had to join the convoy the very next day and had little time to prepare and say goodbye to Bruttia, but the good news was that these shipments were always large, accompanied with lots of civilian travelers and therefore properly secured by military.

They had their first day of rest in Hadrianopolis, which was the only major city on their way. The tavern next to the Cursus Publicus office looked promising and they decided to spend the whole day there. After all, riding horses all day long, has always been the most interesting way to travel, but doing it day after day requires a day or two of rest to give both, people and horses a break from each other.

Septimius switched places with Vitus to sit next to Hero. "Hero, you're from Antioch, aren't you? How much do you know about Arab history in Syria?"

"Yes, but I was very young when I left Syria. Compared to the city of Antioch, which, like my family, had more Greek ancestry, Arabs are the majority in the eastern parts of the province. But I had many Arab friends in school and they all were very good people. I remember once, they took me to visit the sacred black stone in the temple of Emesa." His attention went to Lucia as well. "Actually, when I saw that rock that they claim fell from the sky, that was the moment I became interested in laws of nature. Lucia, you would have been amazed, it was the biggest piece of iron I had ever seen and it was as black as if it had passed through the hottest fire while passing through the air."

"You visited the Temple of the Sun in Emesa? Septimius was insistent. "Have you heard of Julius Bassianus?"

"Of course, he is a member of the royal family of Emesa. They are very respected people. His younger daughter was in the same school in Antioch as we were, although a few years older than us. We all had a little crush on h..…”

"You know Julia Domna?" Septimius raised his voice a bit and interrupted Hero. "Tell me more about her? How she looks like? Is she smart? Beautiful?" He awkwardly close the distance to Hero. "Maybe both?"

"Yes, Hero." Lucia leaned against the table, smiling and suddenly more interested in the story. "We all want to hear more about her." Then she looked cryptically at Septimius. "But watch what you say, I think we just found out the real reason for the trip to Antioch." She smiled sincerely. "The one that has nothing to do with Rome."

Septimius raised both hands in surrender. "Ah, you got me!" In a way he was relieved that the secret was out. "It's true. I'm on my way to meet my future wife." He was in his early forties but looked twenty years younger at the moment. "I'm so nervous... More so than the day I was admitted to the Cursus Honorum."

"Don't worry senator." Hero offered a word of comfort. "Julia was the smartest girl in school and.. You know, humble and defiant at the same time." He looked briefly at Lucia. "Almost like.."

"Defiant?" Lucia returned him a surprised look.

"No, no, no.. I meant.. In a good way."

Septimius smiled and stood up. "How about this. When you are done with Kai Shuang in Byzantium, I am taking you both with me to Antioch. Hero, you could use the time to visit your parents and I'll have more company to keep me less nervous on the way. And from there, we will take the ship and together return to Rome." He said it as if it wasn't a suggestion.

"I don't know. Lucia had serious seasickness when we sailed from Alexandria to Crete, and now it's autumn already. The weather would not be on our side." 

"Do not worry about it. This is sailing along the coast of the entire route. Even in winter there are not many problems. She will be just fine." He headed for his room and motioned for everyone to do the same. "And now let's rest. Tomorrow we are on the road again. We're leaving early."

But the gods did not share Septimius' plans and the next morning they were welcomed by a heavy windstorm. The rain was pouring down like a waterfall behind Titus' mansion and the convoy had to stay in Hadrianopolis for the next two days.

On the morning of the third day, the rain finally stopped and Hero was awakened to rare October sunshine. Pleasant sunny mornings were always special after days of bad weather. But not as pleasant as Lucia's warm body next to his, who was still asleep with her head resting on his chest and her left hand on his shoulder. He moved a lock of her black hair behind her ear and thought he wouldn't have minded if the storm had lasted a little longer. He had never felt like this before and doubted it could ever get better than this. He realized that he loved her deeply. From the moment he saw her for the first time on the Alexandrian marble. All this time, he was too afraid to admit it. To her, but primarily to himself.

He was deep in his thoughts reliving all the pleasant moments with Lucia after they left a little over a month ago when he heard a knock on the door followed by Septimius' voice. "Come one, lovebirds, we are leaving in an hour."

He lifted his head towards the door and when he was about to answer, Lucia put her hand over his mouth and whispered. "He said we had one hour."

* * *

The next five days of the trip were spent in much better weather conditions and they reached the coast accompanied by a mostly visible sun that rose directly in front of them each morning and set just behind them each evening. When they passed through the walls of Byzantium around noon, they were greeted by a clear blue sky without a single cloud and crystal clear and calm waters surrounding the city on all sides except the west. There were hundreds of seagulls in the sky and over the sea everywhere they looked.

Cursus Publicus stables were located by the Golden Horn, the city's long harbor of the northern edge of the peninsula. After they closed the formalities, they took the break for the lunch, at the very edge of the horn, overlooking the sea of Propontis to the south, strait of Bosporus to the north and the mouth of the Golden Horn to the west.

"Why is it called the Golden Horn?" Lucia was curious.

"There are many stories and myths. But, the origin of the name is simple." Septimius stood up and pointed to a small hill at the end of the bay. "See that hill over there? At certain times of the year, if you stand on top of that hill and look toward the beginning of the horn-shaped bay where we are now, the water shines like gold at sunrise."

"It would be nice to visit that part of town, if we can."

"Actually, we'll have to go to the base of that hill. Maybe a few hundred feet before the base. That's our destination." Qian said picking through yesterday's leftovers. "Kai's shop is there."

"Do you know exactly where it is?"

"No, but there's no need. I guess there aren't many medical supply shops out there run by a strange-looking man with a pointy hat and small slanted eyes. I am sure we will find Kai easily."

Byzantium was one of those rare cities that, although under strong Roman influence, resisted changes over the years and in which the Greek spirit survived along with recognizable architecture and the Greek language, which was spoken by all its inhabitants. The city's independence was established under the influence of its strategic position and the impression that the city was almost impregnable, because it could only be approached from the west, where it was protected by high walls, while on all other sides it was surrounded by water and was easier to defend. In a way, Byzantium was a bridge between the western and eastern part of the Roman Empire.

They decided to split up and Septimius with Vitus and his two legionaries went to senatorial building to look for Asellius Aemilianus, while the two remaining legionaries went with Qian, Hero and Lucia to Kai's shop. After Septimius' group left for the agora, Qian led the others along the Golden Horn. It took them an hour to reach the part of the harbor filled with various shops and small markets.

"Come this way." Qian walked towards the second row of narrow streets. "He wrote to me, it's a three-story building, with a flat roof and a red dragon sign. Let's try that way." There were many small alleys connecting the street to the harbor and it took some effort to get through them all. They had been wandering for about half an hour when Qian spotted it. "Here, there it is!" He pointed to a small shop labeled "φαρμάκευμα" which was designed in red and something resembling a dragon's head.

It was interesting, to say the least, to see the two friends reunited after almost three full years when they each went their separate ways from Rome. Seric's language was a complete surprise to everyone, as they had never heard it in conversation, except for situations where Qian was talking to himself, especially when he was annoyed with something. The situation was a little complicated because Qian was fluent in Latin, while Kai had learned Greek very well in Byzantium in the last three years, and Hero had to translate from one to the other and vice versa often.

When they introduced themselves and Qian explained to Kai why they had come to visit him, he locked the shop door and excitedly motioned for them to follow him back into the house. "Please follow me, there is a larger room at the back. We can sit and talk more easily there."

They settled down at the kitchen table and Hero took out the carved objects and placed them on the table. "We believe both of these notes originate from the land where you came from. Qian said that they are very old and that the text is written in the ancient Seric language, which is no longer spoken. We were hoping you would help us read it."

"This is incredible..." He examined both, the bone and the shell and placed them on the table side by side. "Let's see... I'm a little rusty, it's been almost two decades since we studied the old transcripts, and..." Kai ran his fingers over the carved pictographs thoughtfully for a while and then raised his head and looked at Hero. "Where did you find this?"

"Our friend's great-grandfather brought them from the island of Crete, almost a hundred years ago, with a short message in Greek that it was about the appearance of a new star in the night sky."


"Yes, an island halfway between Greece and Aegyptus." Lucia jumped in. "We visited old ruins that belonged to the people who lived there many centuries ago and saw their carvings that were similar to these. They are not the same, but there are certain similarities."

"We believe they may have migrated to Crete from the far east and brought these notes with them." Hero added. "Or perhaps the carvings appeared later on the island, with some later waves of migration or by trade."

"That's probably not far from the truth." Kai was still in his thoughts, looking at the objects again. "There are theories that our ancestors explored the lands to the west on several occasions, but I couldn't have guessed that they could have come that far. If this is true, according to these pictographs, it must have been at least fifteen centuries ago, between the Xia and Shang dynasties."

"You can read them?" Lucia was excited and little impatient.

"I think I can." First he turned the bone towards them. "I can't be absolutely sure, of course, but I think this one says that after 7 days from the beginning of the month of Yisi, a big new star appeared next to the Huo star."

"Huo star?"

"Yes, a large reddish star in the group of stars we call the Blue Dragon. I think you know it as the constellatio of Skorpiós."

"And the turtle shell?"

Kai took the shell, rotated it and placed it next to the bone to its right side. "This one was easier to translate. It says that during the month of Xinwei, the new star disappeared. Which means it was visible in the sky for about three months."

"The guest star we saw over Alexandria was visible for eight months!" Lucia remembered. "It must have been much bigger. Or closer."

"You saw one with your own eyes?"

"Not just that, we saw the moment it appeared in the sky last December, and by the end of July it was visible near the horizon in the south. When I searched the Library for any reference to anything like that, I found a written note in a book with part of the text copied from this bone."

"It had to be very low in the sky, otherwise we could see it from here as well."

Lucia took the bone and pointed to three dots that were between the icon representing a single person and another with two people holding hands. "So this part here means that in the night sky one star became two." She looked at Kai, then out the window at the blue sky above the harbor. "Too bad the stars are too far away. So distant that we can't see them during the day. Otherwise, we would understand them better."

"They are far away..." Kai made a mysterious expression. "...but we can bring them closer. If you come back around midnight, I'll show you how."

* * *

They met Septimius two hours later at the same place where they had parted earlier. It wasn't hard to find a place to stay and with Septimius' senatorial seal they found a more luxurious than average mansion. After settling in, Vitus and his men went to the harbor to find a suitable ship for their upcoming trip to Antioch. Qian decided to stay with Kai to help him with tonight's stargazing, leaving Hero, Lucia, and Septimius alone, who gathered for a proper meal after a few days of riding.

"Stargazing?" Septimius was confused by the new word. "What is that supposed to mean? Is it just a fancy word for watching the night sky and waiting for a shooting star to pass by?

"I hope not." Hero laughed. "But he was dead serious when he said he could enlarge the stars so we could see what they really are."

"What do you think of him Lucia, is the guy serious? Or are his words what is enlarged?"

"I really can't say." She also smiled at his suspicion. "I guess we'll have to wait and see. It would probably just be a lecture, but I really can't wait to hear what he has to say. He's undoubtedly very well educated and we'll learn firsthand about the level of knowledge in the Kingdom of Serica."

"Well, count on me going with you tonight. It's been a long time since I attended anything that didn't have to do with politics, governance, warfare..."

"How did it go with Asellius?" Septimius hadn't mentioned anything about their meeting and Hero was curious.

"Not good." He sighed. "As it seems, everybody is smelling the end of Commodus and how to profit out of it. It seems to me that he is just measuring which side to lean on when the time comes. If he bows to Niger, he will hand Byzantium to him on a platter." He paused to find the right words. "There's something about this city... I've always kind of liked it when I was coming here and it would be a shame if the conflict broke out outside this walls. There is only one way to break in and I don't like it."

Their mansion was located near the agora and as night fell Hero and Lucia went for a walk before heading to Kai's shop. The main attraction in the center of the city of Byzantium was the famous Baths of Zeuxippus, which were built on the foundations of the Temple of Zeus where the Greek Acropolis was once located couple of centuries ago. Like in Naissus, the oil lamps that were lit and distributed throughout the agora and public streets of greater importance gave a special feeling to all who gathered to listen and watch individual performers who, unlike previous Greek times, were not influenced only by religion and philosophy. There were also those whose performances were attended by families with children and those whose purpose was pure entertainment. The Roman influence was obvious, but it was still a wonderful mix of the two cultures combining in the same place.

Time passed quickly and soon they were on their way back to meet Septimius and the legionaries, with whom they reached Kai's shop just before midnight. It was dark and quiet and when Hero knocked on the door they waited a long time before Qian answered.

"Please come in." He stepped aside to make room for them to enter. "We're on the roof and it takes time to get down. Follow me."

It wasn't easy to get to the roof, because it was necessary to go through a couple of small passages, climb narrow stairs and finally get to the roof using a wooden ladder. Hero could never have imagined what they would encounter on a flat roof some twenty feet long and fifteen across.

Kai was accompanied by his assistant, a young Greek named Tobias, while behind them was an imposing wooden structure. At a height of about eight feet, a half-foot round burning glass was fixed to a wooden frame. A rod about three feet long was attached to the base of the frame and at the end of which was a smaller wooden mount on a small rails that contained some sort of a green crystal. 

The wooden structure below the rod resembled a ship's mast, only on a smaller scale, with several ropes that could be used to move the rod in multiple directions by controlling wooden handles mounted near the gem, by winding or loosening. Tobias was sitting on a stool next to one end of the rod and appeared to be testing the device. He was rotating handles of the two winches in different directions and the rod followed the movement by rotating itself, always pointing the burning glass towards the sky and the gem towards the floor of the roof.

"What in the names of..." Septimius couldn't finish the thought. The others were also speechless, and decided to wait for Kai's explanation.

When it didn't came in a short time, Lucia was first to react. "Kai, please meet Septimius Severus, the senator who we were mentioned earlier. He is the governor of Lugdunum in Gallia." She smiled at Septimius' confusion. "I take it, that this is a.... Stargazer?"

"Yes. This is it." Kai stepped towards Septimius and bowed. "I am very glad to meet you senator, and that you found the time to come to my humble... well... roof." He stepped back to answer Lucia's question. "Yes, this is an apparatus I made that will help us see objects in the sky more closely. Will you do me the honor of testing it first? All you have to do is sit next to... sorry, I only know the Greek word for it - smáragdos, the green gem. I'm sure you are all familiar with it?"

Lucia sat where he pointed. "Now what?"

He winded the left handle just a little to the right, and the right a few angles to the left. "Now it's aimed at Luna. All you have to do is to look through the gem, but make sure you direct your gaze directly to the center of the burning glass."

It took her a few seconds to adjust her vision and do as he said. She was looking through the gem only couple of moments after she turned her head towards them with her mouth and eyes wide open. "How..." It took her several more moments to regain herself. "How is this possible?" She looked again and then made a puzzled look. "It's gone! I can't see it anymore?"

"The Terra is moving. You must use these two handles and find Luna back in your vision." He stepped behind her. "Here, I'll show you." He adjusted the rod to direct at Luna again. "You have to do it while watching or you'll lose it."

She mastered it in a short while. "This is amazing. What are those shadows? A mountains? It's strange how they all are round." She stood up. "Hero, come, have a look."

After Hero, everyone looked through the gem, including Vitus and the legionaries. While they were doing that, Hero inspected the structure and the glass. "Seems simple enough, but I've never read anywhere that combining burning glass and gems can have this effect. Do you have these studies in Serica?"

"Actually yes, we learn about nature from the philosophy of Mohism and its old book called Mozi. There is a section dedicated to experimenting with light, burning mirrors and how to form an upside down images in a dark chambers."

"Smaragdus is actually popular among rich people in Rome." Septimius joined the convesation. "It is a well-known property of the gem that it can clarify the vision for those people who see better up close, but dimly at a distance. Emperor Nero was one of them. He used smaragdus to watch gladiators' games in the arena more clearly and magnified."

"This is exactly right. The secret behind it, is that the burning glass, if made perfectly, can collect more light than the human eye and form an image directly in front of the gem, which then magnifies it, as you described."

Lucia joined them after taking another look at Luna. "You said earlier that Terra was moving? People here widely believe that it is actually standing still and that everything else revolves around us. But there are also those who claim that Terra actually, like other wanderers, moves and rotates around the Sun."

"Oh yes, the eternal argument." Everywhere and in Serica too. But it's wrong, nothing is as simple as it seems. I like to think that nothing stands still in the Kosmos. Even the stars, only they're just too far away to notice. The Sun is also a star and I believe that it is also in motion, pulling us along."

"Aristarchus of Samos speculated in his book The Sun Hypothesis that all stars are fixed in the sphere very far away." Hero was thinking out loud. "But he was wrong, wasn't he?"

"Why would they be?" They are everywhere in the sky. Some are close, others further away. We cannot say, let alone claim, that they are all at the same distance. Even in a part of the sky where our eyes can't see anything, if we point a stargazer at it, we could see more. Try it, point the rod at the empty places in the sky and you will see."

Hero tried it and soon spotted one. "This is truly exceptional." He adjusted the rod once more. "This star now appears to be two stars, they stand very close to each other."

Kai stepped closer to Hero. "You are close to the constellatio of Orion. See those three stars in the middle of it?"


"Could you point to the middle star in the vertical group just below those three? That reddish one. Let me know what you see."

Hero did as Kai told him, and as soon as he saw it through the gem, he looked at Kai in confusion. "This doesn't look like a star at all! It's more like a haze or a cloud of... What is that?"

"I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it's just a dozens of very distant stars that only appears to us like that. Or it is just a cloud of dust and rocks. The Kosmos is a mysterious place about which we know very little. Like those guest stars, the one you saw and the one described in the carvings. We simply don't know and can only speculate what they really were."

The roof fell silent for a moment. Everyone was amazed by everything they saw and heard in the short time they spent here.

"I have a theory about what they were." Hero offered still looking though the gem. "But you are not going to like it."

Everybody turned to him.

Hero stopped looking through the device, but he was still sitting, his eyes fixed on the sky. "I suspected this from the beginning, but now seeing the stars through Kai's wondrous device, I am more sure of it." He looked at everyone. "I don't think the guest star is a star at all. This is rather what was left of the star at the end of it's life, when it went bright in a blast of all colors." He paused for a moment. "Like your bombus of smoke, Qian. It burns all its life, and then when all the fuel is gone, it stops and all we can see is the star smoke. That's why it disappeared after a few months. The bigger the star, the longer it takes to eventually die out."

"Do you think our Sun will eventually end up in its final flame as well?" Lucia looked through the gem over his shoulders. "What would that mean? I mean for us, here on Terra, when that happens?"

It was obvious that he had thought about the same question and his answer was prompt. "It means we should not worry about it. The scale and time in which the Кosmos lives is too big for us." He took her hand in his and looked into her eyes. "Our lives are here and now and the only thing we can do is make the most of them."

© 2023 Milan's Public Journal