The story takes place about twelve years before the events of Murder in-absentia and during 79 CE in Rome (well after the events of Nemesis by Lindsey Davis).
Make sure to read Part I first.
Rome, 79 AD
I woke up naked on a side of a hill, above a proper road. Behind me was a volcanic peak similar to Vergu, and off to the side I thought I saw the sea. But things were wrong, not laid out properly to be Egretia. The season was still summer, the air warm, the countryside still unfamiliar. I got up, closed my eyes and tried to sense the magia. I could feel none. I cursed, profusely. I was still stuck in that strange world of ‘Rome’. Or maybe somewhere even worse.
I looked around again, but there was no sign of Araxus. I was expecting this though, after last time. The mentula will have to find his own way home — assuming he was transported as I was.
Time to deal with the nakedness. I walked down to the road, looked left, looked right, saw nothing and decided to go in the direction of the sea. A couple of miles later I reached a shady grove of trees. I stopped in the shade to see if I can find some water, when I saw a few men on horseback inside the grove, hidden from the road.
“Good morning citizens!” I hailed them. “I find myself stranded here, left to die by some brigands. In fact I am not even sure where I am. Would you be able to help an unfortunate citizen?”
“Scram, cacator!” said one and brandished a coiled whip in my direction.
I scrammed. As I exited the grove back to the road, I saw a mule-drawn cart with two men approaching from the other side. Both looked forty-ish, dark-haired, classical profiles. The driver had a sharp look in his eyes; his companion was larger and with a good natured-face on which time and troubles had etched deep lines.
Just as I was about to hail them, the men on horseback erupted out of the grove, some in front and some behind the cart, six in total. I made my way back behind the nearest tree, and looked on from that vantage point.
The leader of the horsemen turned to the men in the cart and said, “Thought you could avoid us by taking the long way around, eh Falco? Well, you’re not getting away this easily!”
“Ease off, Vibinius,” said the driver. “You have no legal claim on this.”
“Legal is a matter of opinion,” said Vibinius, his voice dripping malice, “and the only opinion that matters is that of the one who stays alive. Hand it over, or, I assure you, mine will be the only one that matters.”
They stared at each other in tense silence for a long moment. Finally Falco sighed and said, “You know I can’t do that.”
“Take them, men!” cried Vibinius in response, and cracked his whip at the man called Falco on the cart. Falco ducked, and when he came up he was holding a sword in his right hand. His large friend on the cart drew one as well; the horsemen started to circle them, looking for an opening, while the two men remained standing on the cart ready to defend themselves.
The men on horseback and the men on the cart exchanged a few swipes and feints, a few insults, calls to cease and desist. Being outnumbered three to one did not look promising for Falco and his friend. Just in case, I picked up a rock, and stood clenching it as I watched with bated breath.
Finally Vibinius saw his chance when one of his colleagues distracted Falco, and made a stab at his mid-section. Falco managed to dodge but barely, Vibinius’ sword ripping a gash in his tunic.
The brigand horsemen resumed their circling of the open cart. I was tense, engrossed in the spectacle before me, so it took me a while to notice that the ground started to tremble slightly. The men on the road were too busy to notice.
One of the horsemen drew back, took a whip and cracked it at the large man on the cart. The man raised his hand, and as the whip coiled around his arm he gasped in pain. The horseman barked a laugh and reared his horse in an attempt to unbalance Falco’s friend, yet his laugh was cut short. The man proved that size does matter, and with both arms yanked on the whip and unhorsed the rider. The brigand screamed as he hit the hard paving stones, a sharp crack indicating that he broke his arm trying to protect his face. His horse bolted. The odds improved to five against two, but still looked grim for the two on the cart.
Vibinius, leader of the brigands, cursed his men and shouted at them to rush all at once. I have no explanation for what I did next. It wasn’t my fight, I was naked in a foreign and strange land. Yet as the horsemen rushed Falco and his friend on the cart, I stepped out from behind my tree, took aim, and threw the rock I held at Vibinius.
Yet the projectile whizzing past his ear was enough to distract him, enough for Falco to find an opening and slash at his thigh leaving a nasty red streak behind. Vibinius screamed. I picked up another rock, and this time I hit the rump of a horse of another brigand. The horse reared and bolted, the rider hanging on for dear life. Just then the earth gave a mighty shake, forcing the men on the cart to buckle and sit, and spooking the horses who started to rear and whinny.
This was enough for the other brigands. Two of their men down, their leader wounded and even the earth turning against them, they turned and fled down the road.
I walked over to the men on the cart; the trembling of the earth subsided after that last rattle. “Hello friends,” I hailed them. They turned and peered at me suspiciously, swords still in hand. “I am not entirely sure what happened,” I continued, “but those men appeared like brigands and you two strike me as decent citizens. Would you render assistance to a stranded fellow man?”
The men looked at me and then at each other for a moment, and Falco said to me, “Thank you for your help with those goons. How, if I may ask, did you end up naked and in their company?”
I spun them a story, of how I was abducted by robbers, bound and gagged, carried in a closed cart an unknown distance, barely made my escape this morning only to fall prey again to this new band of brigands.
“And here I thought this road would be safer,” said Falco. “Why don’t you come up here and sit with me, and we’ll give you a ride to the next town.”
“What about our business though?” asked his large friend.
“I think we’re safe, he looks harmless like that, too naked to cause trouble.” He turned back to me and asked, “What’s your name, stranger?”
“Spurius Vulpius,” I answered, “known as Felix. Though whether one of Fortuna’s favourites or her plaything remains to be seen.”
“I wouldn’t like to cross Fortuna,” he said with a smile. “I’m Marcus Didius Falco, and my friend here is Lucius Petronius Longus. Calls us Petro and Falco. Petro, why don’t you see if we have a spare tunic back there?”
I climbed up next to him, took the tunic Petro handed me, slipped it on and sat down. The back part of the cart was covered with blankets, hiding the cargo. Petro was sitting on top of it rather casually, but in a way that made sure it remained well covered.
As we rode, I chatted with Falco. I pretended that the kidnappers dragged me for days and I had no clue where I was. This allowed me to ask questions about where we were, without seeming too out of place. I learnt that we were on a stretch of a local road, branching from what Falco called the Via Popilia towards the town of Pompeii. Falco and his friend were heading back to Rome, he said. Foreign names that meant nothing to me, except that last — it was still the same world as Gordianus’.
As we were riding another difference between my world and this one of ‘Rome’ struck me. While both our cultures built roads to last millennia, the Romans had an obsession with straight lines. No matter what stood in the path of the road, they tried to build it to cut right across the scenery. Hills? Steep inclines. Gorges? Bridges. Only a mountain or a sea would seem to make the road deviate and curve.
When asked about my business, I claimed that I was doing a study of ancient battlefields. Conducting geographical surveys and natural information for a treatise on ancient tactics. Given my experience with Gordianus and the silver mine, I thought of searching for places of death where I might use some residual magia in an attempt to get home. It also sounded harmless enough — a student of natural histories is hardly an object of terror.
I got the feeling though, that however clever, confident and glib I might be in spinning my story, Falco and Petro had their reservations. When I asked about nearby battlefields Petro said, “Well, there hasn’t been anything major in this part of Italy for a long time”, and Falco added, “the last big thing would have been Spartacus, right up there on Vesuvius.” I think the lack of recognition or reaction on my face was telling — though to this day I have no idea who this ‘Spartacus’ was.
I was saved from further enquiries and explanations in a true Felix fashion. As I opened my mouth the ground started to shake again, this time with a louder rumble that spooked the mules.
It took Falco some time to calm them down and resume riding. I asked him about these tremors, and apparently they have been going on for a few days by now. Falco and his friend Petro were keen to get away from them and back to Rome.
We reached a road-side inn, acting as a way-station for weary travellers. Falco led the cart towards the stables at the back. When we got up to disembark, rather suddenly and without warning, the ground gave a single mighty tremor. Falco and I managed to hold on to the sides, but poor Petro was just jumping off and fell down. He was cursing profusely, and I went round the back to help him up. As I did I got a glimpse of the content of the cart. The tarpaulin cover shifted to reveal an opened wooden crate with a statue inside it. I saw a clear marble profile of a young man wearing a diadem, his face and chest perfectly proportional and symmetrical.
“That’s a Polykleitos!” I gasped out before I could stop myself. “Was this what the brigands were after?”
Falco and Petro hastily rearranged the crate’s lid and cover. “It’s only a copy,” said Falco. “How come you recognised it so quickly?”
“My father was a dealer in antiques and fine arts,” I replied, and to myself I thought, a copy my ass — this was the original.
“Mine too,” he said. “Though he died a couple of years back. You have a fine eye, if you can recognise a Polykleitos in a glance.”
I mumbled something and we went inside. I was a bit in a daze. What was one of Hellica’s oldest and greatest masters doing in this world of Rome? The places and names were all different, yet the people spoke the same language and shared the same art. Rather philosophically, art, I surmised, is eternal.
We chatted about art over dinner. Polykleitos was not the only sculptor to exist in both our worlds. Praxiteles, Myron, Phidias were all there. Some authors too — Plautus, Ovidius, Nikander were all present — though from what I gleaned their works were twisted from what I knew.
Government was also twisted. It seems like Rome went back to the time of kings. Yesterday, Gordianus told me Rome was a republic, just like Egretia. In fact he mentioned that their consul, Cicero, just put down a conspiracy by a man to usurp ultimate power. And yet now, I knew not how long after, it seems like this Rome has gone back to be ruled by kings — even if they called themselves by other titles.
As for Marcus Didius Falco himself, I saw a lot of similarities to Gordianus. Together with Petronius Longus they have been doing a lot of ‘this and that’, which I gathered revolved mostly around dealing with anything from stolen artwork to murders. Both Falco and Gordianus travelled extensively; and both tried to hide a poetic bent beneath a gruff exterior.
Sometime late in the evening, well after the other patrons had gone to bed, even though our wine was well-watered its effects were beginning to show. Petro retired a while back to sleep, and Falco and I were about to do the same. We stepped out to the warm night to look at the stars and attend to nature. A plume of soft smoke was rising from the mountain behind us.
Falco turned to me and said, “I have a feeling we shall never meet again, Felix. You are a good man, though a strange one. You speak Latin fluently like a native Roman, yet your understanding of the Roman world is as if you only read snatches of history. I have no idea what you are hiding, but don’t for a minute think I believed your story this morning of brigands; you lack the signs of kidnapping. You are an enigma, which I find fascinating.”
I stood a while lost in thought, staring at the stars. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you the truth,” I said without looking down. “I am not even sure I understand the truth myself. I grew up in a world that is remarkably both similar and different. And then my friend the incantator cast a failed charm, and I found myself here. The day before yesterday I was at my home in Egretia. Yesterday I met a man named Gordianus, who witnessed your consul Cicero put down the conspiracy of Catilina — ”
“Cicero?” Falco interjected in amazement, “That was over a hundred years ago!”
“And today,” I continued, “I met you. I am tired and homesick. I dread to think where I will be tomorrow.”
Falco looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder. I thought he was about to say something, but then he just shook his head and went back inside.
I stood there a while longer, breathing warm night air. The mountain rumbled again, belched a puff of smoke. Inebriated and melancholy as I was, my skin tingled. Volcanus was stirring under that peak. Tomorrow, I decided, I will climb up there and petition the god to take me home, or take me to a fiery death.
In the morning I said farewell to Falco and Petro. I clasped arms with Falco and shared a silent moment. We both knew we would not see each other again, and although I had no idea what he remembered — or even believed — of last night, I got the feeling he did not dismiss me outright.
I packed a small bag with provisions, and headed back in the direction we came from yesterday. I took a narrow side road Falco told me about, and made my way up the mountain side. The lower slopes were covered with splendid vineyards, enjoying the rich volcanic soil.
By mid-afternoon the climb became strenuous. I left the vineyards well below me, and at these heights there were hardly any trees to give shade. The rough and broken stones of the path were harsh on my feet, made worse for the ill-fitting sandals I got from the inn proprietor last night.
Once, when I was negotiating a scree of sharp, hard stones, the mountain gave a shudder. I fell and slid and tore up the skin on my hands and knees. Yet I knew I must keep going. As I got nearer to the top, I could feel very faint traces of magia, my last and only hope to get back home.
When the stars came out, I found a shallow hollow and slept fitfully.
I rose at dawn and made the last leg of my trip to the very top. There I found a crater, and settled myself on a boulder inside. From here I could feel a certain expectant air to the place, at least under the horrid smell of sulphur. I gazed up, and saw a vulture circling to the right. A good omen.
I crossed my legs, closed my eyes, and tried to remember the feeling of magia when Araxus had thrown us… away. I tried to remember what I’ve done in the silver mine under the mountain with Gordianus. Mostly, I tried to remember home.
The sun was merciless.
I used up all my water by mid-morning.
By midday my throat was parched, my chanting barely audible.
And it was then that I felt it. A hot stream of magia making its way up from the depths, as if Volcanus himself was climbing out of his fiery domain.
I rode it, channelled it, drew it to me. I increased the tempo, the intensity of my chanting, till I was screaming hoarsely.
The ground was shaking, loose rocks started to rattle and move around, and still I chanted, drew up and drew on the magia. I was floating off the ground by then, still chanting, my skin covered in goosebumps.
And then it broke the surface. I rode up on a pillar of smoke and burning ash, carried ahead of it, faster than it; tumbling in the air, I saw the whole of the earth beneath me, covered in a grey and roiling blanket of smoke and fire, getting smaller, winking out…
Egretia, 523 AUC
I woke up naked, under a clear blue sky, lying on a rocky path above a proper road. I was getting tired of this. I stood up cursing and brushed sand and pebbles off me. Beyond the road I saw cliffs at the edge of a wide open sea, I could smell the fresh and familiar air, and to my right I saw the unmistakable peak of Vergu.
I walked down to the road — the Via Rupis that runs west from Egretia along the coastal cliffs — turned right, and walked back to my beloved city. I was home at last.
It was a while later, when I walked the streets of Egretia, that I was in for a last surprise. Knowing the land made it much easier. I managed to get myself clothed, get back in the city, make my way home, and take a long relaxing hot bath and massage at the nearest public baths. I then wanted to reassert my home-coming with a classic Egretian treat — squid-on-a-stick, drenched in fermented fish sauce.
I set out to walk the streets, to enjoy the familiar sights, sounds and smells on the way to the corner shop of Vopiscus, purveyor of the finest squid on this side of the bay. Once sated, I made my way down the rest of the Road of Unsavoury Smells — and got some Egretian cheese on the way — till I reached the bay. I turned left and walked towards the Forum Egretum.
It was when I neared the forum that I got my shock. Walking out from between the Collegium Mercatorum and the Collegium Millitum, engaged in deep conversation, I saw the two people I expected the least — Gordianus and Falco.
I stopped and stared slack-jawed as they walked past me. I ran after them, got in front, stammered a bit, and asked, “Falco and Gordianus?”
They gazed at me for a moment in silence, and then Gordianus said, “Gordius and Falconius.”
“Do you know who I am? I mean, have we met?” I blabbered.
“I don’t think we’ve met before,” said Falconius. “Are you in need of our services?”
“You… you find things, right?” I said. “You solve problems? Travelled, right? To many places? Seen things…” I blathered like a madman at their uncomprehending faces.
They were about to walk away when I drew fresh breath and called them to wait. Started again. Said something about a prophetic dream. Kept talking and walking with them and talking some more. Until I wore them down. Until they were ready to agree to anything. Until I was accepted.
I was now a junior assistant in the firm of Gordius et Falconius, a trainee investigator. This was the job I was suited to do, much more than a merchant in antiques like my father, or an incantator, or a legionary. I would use the bits and pieces I have learnt throughout my life — the knowledge of antiques and the magical paraphernalia markets from my father, my own knowledge of incantations, my legionary training, the experience gathered on my travels, everything I have ever learnt — and put it all to use in helping them solve the mysteries presented by their customers.
And so, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, my life was back on track, and my course for the future was set.
If you liked this story, try Murder In Absentia for a full-length Felix mystery.
Subscribe with the Follow link (bottom right) to be notified when new short stories are published.