Friday, September 02, 2016

Prester John, Chapter 1 (Part 1)

* 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 ~

The Year 852 according to the Old Roman Calendar,

Eight hundred and fifty-two years from the founding of the City,

The third year of Emperor Trajan,

The Year which began with the consulships of Trajan and Frontinus

(100 AD)

Historical Note: The story opens in the aftermath of a major turning-point in the history of the Roman Empire. For two and a half decades, a single family, the Flavians, had ruled as Emperors: Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. But Domitian fell into paranoia and madness towards the end of his rule. In the mid-90s, he had his own kinsman, a consul (high state official) by the name of Flavius Clemens, executed on suspicion of “atheism” (i.e., Christianity). Clemens’ sons, who had been named after the emperors Vespasian and Domitian, would have been possible successors to the throne, but Emperor Domitian was assassinated, and the regime changed hands to a widely-respected senator. Thus the Flavius family was left in the shadow of political ruin. This story begins by telling how the son of another line of Roman nobility—the Caelius family—sought to win the favor of a daughter of the disgraced house of Flavius.

Lucius Caelius Pius stood in the center of a vortex of revelry. Around him whirled the fierce and fervid sounds of intoxicated joy, and with a smile he raised his cup to join them.
It was the Veneralia, the celebration of love and marriage. Lucius had gone down with the worshippers to the shrine of the ancient Venus, and had returned garlanded and drunk. Now, in the great, colonnaded hall, it was time to rejoice, to throw one’s own hopes and expectations for a happy marriage into the care of the goddess, and, for one more night, to be young and bold and free.
“Lucius! Lucius Pius!”
He turned, looking for the voice that hailed him. There was Gaius, an old friend, swimming toward him through the purpling haze of the party.
Lucius tried to raise an arm in a friendly salute, but the motion nearly made him topple over. His friend’s laughter grated in his ears.
“Lucius!” said Gaius, taking him by the elbow. “I believe the goddess has been a bit too kind to you tonight. Better come and sit down with me.”
Gaius led him over to the series of low couches that lined the edges of the vast room, and they sat down at the foot of an elegant pillar. The table beside them was laden with bread and fruit and meat, graciously provided for the revelers by the lord of the house. Though he was not feeling hungry at all, Lucius took up a knife and began to carve off a haunch of meat.
“What brings you here, Gaius?” he slurred.
His friend smiled. “I want the goddess to favor my future wife and children, just as you do.”
“Yes!” said Lucius. “And so she will. I’ve already found the woman I’m to marry, though. You know that, Gaius, don’t you?”
“Yes, so I’ve heard.”
“Flavia! Beautiful…do you know how beautiful she is, old friend?”
“Very beautiful indeed. But most suitors are more than a little wary of the Flavii family right now. How does your father feel about the match?”
Lucius used the knife to bring a slice of meat to his lips. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “My father…” he mused, “the great Caelius…he is ignorant and stubborn. No, you’re right, Gaius, he doesn’t want me to marry Flavia. Not after everything that’s happened.”
“Well, perhaps he’s right. You Caelii are a noble family, too, and it might not be in your best interests to wed someone under such a cloud of ill-fortune. There are plenty of other young noblewomen who would be happy to raise the next generation of Caelii.”
“I suppose…but none as beautiful as Flavia.” He took a long draught of wine and sighed.
“Look there, Lucius! Isn’t that her brother over there next to the pillar?”
“Which brother?” he raised his hazy eyes across the party.
“Domitian, the younger. Yes, look there he is. Domitian! Flavius Domitian!”
“Oh, for the love of the gods, Gaius, don’t call him over here. He’s insufferable.”
But it was too late. The young man had heard their hails and was sauntering over, reeling a bit with each step. He was fat and awkward, but from the look of the cocky smile on his face, he didn’t know it.
He, like his sister and the rest of the Flavius family, had seen his fortunes take a dramatic plunge recently. At one time, Domitian and his older brother Vespasian had been the heirs-apparent to the imperial throne. Their relative, the infamous Emperor Domitian, had early on identified them as his successors. But then things took a turn for the worse. Their father, Clemens, had been consul five years earlier, but he was deposed and executed by the Emperor on suspicion of following a seditious atheism—one of the new religious fads made popular by the Jews and their ilk, which denied the existence of the traditional gods. So their father died and their mother was exiled, and as if that weren’t enough, a steward from their own house joined the conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor. After that, the Flavian dynasty was finished, and the young Domitian saw his promised throne taken away and given to the respected senator Nerva, and then to the young Trajan.
Even so, in the midst of all these troubles and shattered hopes, the young aristocrat walked as if he were still the heir of the entire Roman world.
He leered at them, then settled ponderously down across the table.
“So,” he said thickly, “here I find the incomparable Lucius Caelius Pius, heir to a noble patrician house, swilling with the brokenhearted! Could it be that you, favored and glorious son, are stricken of heart?” The question ended in a mocking laugh.
“Shut up, Domitian,” growled Lucius.
“What? Do you refuse to speak to your future brother-in-law?”
Gaius placed a calming hand on Lucius’ tense forearm, bunched and ready to strike.
“Don’t pay any attention to him, Lucius. What place does he have to mock your fortune anyway?” Gaius was speaking in barbed words, loud enough for Domitian to hear. “He is nothing more than the failed son of a failed house, named for a man who died in shame.”
Domitian scowled. “A failed house? Believe this: the Flavii will rise again. Unless, of course, your friend Lucius here succeeds in joining us to his Caelii swine.”
Lucius, encased in a shell of fracturing wrath, kept silent.
“Do you know why it will never work, Lucius? Do you want to know why your father doesn’t want you to take my sister as your wife? It’s because she’s a stupid cow, a traitor to Rome and to our household. Just like my father, the ruin of our house—she’s an atheist, godless and reprobate. The gods hate her. Why would the great Caelius let you ruin his family’s name with filth like her?”
Gaius laughed. “Do you always speak about your own sister like this?”
Domitian shrugged. “What I say is true. If not for the idiocy of my family, I might be emperor right now. You know that as well as I do.”
“No, it wasn’t your father’s fault; that was Emperor Domitian’s own arrogance that ended that line of succession.”
He shrugged again. “Doesn’t matter. I’m just here for Lucius Pius’ sake. Right, old friend? I know you’ve been down to the temple tonight, been pleading to the goddess to make some way for you to wed Flavia. Right? Maybe the goddess sent me to tell you the truth. To spare you the ignominious fate of bringing such a wretched creature into your home.”
Lucius felt the walls of his restraint crumbling around him. The world was a maelstrom of red, and all he could see was Domitian’s fat, coarse face, spouting obscenities about the woman he loved.
“She’s the worst woman in Rome!” laughed her brother, undaunted by the storms gathering on the face of the nobleman across the table. “She’s too poor to be a good matron, too impious to be a good mother, and too chaste to be a good lover. She’s covered in the vomit of her traitorous Christ.”
Lucius didn’t even know what he was doing. He felt his arm begin to swing back, felt it shake off Gaius’ restraining hand. His entire being was focused on shutting the gaping mouth of the fool in front of him, planting his fist there to silence this stream of invective against Flavia.
Hollow words rang out around him. Gaius shouting: “Lucius, no!” Trying to grab his arm. A flash of steel somewhere in the air in front of him. Domitian’s eyes growing wide. Pulling back his head, flinching away from the descending blow.
Then a scarlet blossom everywhere, all over Domitian’s face.
Domitian, falling to the floor.
Domitian, dying.
In that one moment, the haze of drink lifted from Lucius eyes, and he saw what he had done. His hand, with which he had meant to punch his adversary, still clutched the meat-carving knife. Now it was stained with blood. Domitian, who just a few years ago had been an heir to the entire Roman Empire, was dead on the other side of the table.
The music and laughter around them gave way to shouts, cries, tremors of horror. Lucius dropped the knife. It clattered to the floor with a sound like thunder. He felt Gaius grabbing him by the shoulders, pushing him out from behind the table.
“Go! Go! Let’s go, Lucius! Now!”
Stumbling, running, tearing through the crowd, the two friends rushed out of the house and into the darkness of the street outside. A few voices called out after them, a few young men made a timid show of trying to stop them. When they felt the cool night air on their faces, Lucius fell down to his knees and retched onto the paving-stones.
“Gods, what have I done?” he gasped.
“Get out of here, Lucius!” Gaius pulled him up by his shoulders and gave him a shove.
“Where?” he whispered hoarsely. “Where can I go?”
“Anywhere!” shouted his friend, backing away from him. “Go anywhere, but away from Rome! You have to disappear, Lucius!”
“You’ve murdered a fellow patrician! You can’t stay here. Go, go!”
“Gaius!” Lucius shouted, but his friend was gone. He was alone in the chill air of the Roman night.
He thought about going home, gathering a few things up. But his father would be there, would ask what he was doing. His father, noble and true, would not hesitate to turn him in to the magistrates. He was a Roman through and through, another Junius Brutus, ready to watch his son be slain for the good of the city.
No, he had to go away, and never return. In one unthinking blow, fate had crippled his life forever. He turned his steps west, toward the undulating black mass of the Tyrrhenian Sea. And then, placing one wavering foot before the other, he walked into the bleak horizon.

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