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Friday, September 09, 2016

Prester John, Chapter 1 (Part 2)

* Please note: This work is the intellectual property of Matthew Burden, protected under US copyright law, and is not to be removed, altered, or reproduced in any way.
 

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Chapter 1, continued
 
Lucius reached the edge of the city and looked back. The thumping pain of drink and horror was still pounding in his head. His mind replayed those few brief moments, when the life he knew had ended. He screwed his eyes shut, wishing it would all just go away. But it lingered there, coalescing in his thoughts: the flash of the knife, still in his hand when he struck; Domitian bleeding out on the marbled floor; his friend Gaius pushing him away into the night.
He had taken another man’s life. He knew that. And yet, in that moment, as he looked back over the city he loved, he felt that it was his own life he had murdered.
Suddenly, a new thought broke in over his reeling consciousness: Flavia. He had to see Flavia. She was the reason behind it all. It was for love of her that he had struck Domitian. And now, before he went away into the perpetual death of exile, he had to see her one more time.
He ran back into the city, down the broad, familiar avenues toward the old patrician estates. The way was dark, but he never paused for a moment to regain his bearings. He knew the place where his love dwelt, and he could find it on any night and in any condition.
But as he approached the grand house, the last remnant of the once-proud Flavius family’s glory, he knew he had made a mistake. The pillared portico at the front of the house was a flurry of activity. There was nothing at rest. Oil lamps flickered from between the pillars, casting a haunting glow over the scene. A handful of magistrates were standing there, talking loudly. Nearby, a unit of the praetor’s guards stood drowsily watching the street.
And then he saw her. Flavia.
She was standing in front of the magistrates, her hands on her face, her head shaking back and forth. Lucius could see the quaking of her shoulders as sobs shook her frame. She kept brushing away the tears from her cheeks and smoothing back her dark, disarrayed hair, as if the sheer movement of having something to do with her hands would give her an escape from the news she’d just heard.
Lucius stood there, silent, in a darkened corner of the street. His mind was numb. He had been trying to defend her, trying to keep her brother from saying all those terrible things about her… But now he saw the finality of his act: he had killed her brother—one of her last remaining family members. All his hopes for love crumbled away into oblivion in that one moment. It was over.
Even in the midst of his fitful disorientation, he knew he couldn’t stay there. Those magistrates were asking questions about him. Those praetorian guards were on the lookout for him. Gaius was right. He had to go, and never come back.
For a moment, he thought again of going back to his own family’s estate, and consulting his father. But it was too late for that. If the magistrates were here, then other magistrates would be there already too. Caelius would have heard of the crime, would have condemned his son in the strength of his own self-confident righteousness, and would have given the magistrates leave to watch the streets around their house.
So he turned his steps back toward the west, and followed the winding avenue out beyond the city gates. He walked to the point of exhaustion, and then crawled under the overhanging branches of a low bush to rest. In the distance, down by the river, he could still hear the songs and laughter of other young Romans, celebrating the Veneralia.
He thought about the faith he had put in the goddess just a few hours before, of his prayers for a happy future with a wife and family. Then he thought about Flavia, and Domitian’s claim that she was one of the much-abhorred Christ-following atheists.
Well, he thought, as he drifted off, maybe she’s right. Maybe Venus is nothing but a dream. Maybe there are no gods at all. Or, if there are, they’ve chosen to hate Lucius Pius all the way to the grave.

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