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A Chorus of Unfriendly Guardians

A Chorus of Unfriendly Guardians
by Danny Adams

October, A.D. 54

I wish I could say that when I was brought before Nero after the previous emperor’s death, he was a powerful, menacing figure arrogant upon his throne, wielding life and death from the Imperial throne as Jupiter wields lightning. I know it would make for a better story for me to tell how I quaked in fear at his feet, certain that I could be dead in moments. But in truth he was little more than a scared and quivering boy. He wasn’t even on his throne.

Instead, after being summoned to the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill I was escorted not to the throne room, or even to any furnished room, but a small antechamber deep within whose floor was a mosaic of topless mermaids and whose walls were—long ago, based on the flaking paint—transformed into frescoes of a seaside villa, maybe Tiberius’ at Capri. The not-quite seventeen-year-old new Caesar of Rome was a little chubby with spindly legs, weak blue eyes, and wearing a disheveled gold-trimmed toga. He shifted his weight back and forth.

His mother Agrippina had not a dark curl out of place, boasted a perfectly smooth bright violet dress clasped at the neck by a gold lion brooch, and affected an arrogant look down her nose at me. Though even without magic I would’ve seen in her eyes that she was mortally troubled.

Obviously, or she would never have summoned me. Corinna Ferreolus, a plain, unmarried, twenty-six-year-old lower middle class bookseller’s daughter. Who happened to have some magic, an inescapable biological fact that was nevertheless illegal.

I bowed uncertainly, knowing neither what I should do in the Imperial presence or why I was told to appear. Nero looked the same way, occasionally glancing back at his mother.

Agrippina spoke first, naturally. “You have a certain talent with magic.”

I fought to keep from choking. “Augusta, magic was outlawed fifty years ago by—”

“Octavian. Augustus Caesar, yes, I am aware of the actions of my own family.” Neither she nor Nero were exactly family, at least not by blood, but this wasn’t something you reminded the Imperial Mother of. “I have not summoned you here simply to throw you in prison, girl. You are here to do a service to the Imperial family and the City of Rome.”

I bowed again uncertainly. “I am here to serve you, Augusta.”

“What I am about to tell you will not leave this room. The reward for your silence is your life.” I said nothing, and she continued, “Caesar—the former Caesar, my son’s adopted father, my husband—has been murdered.”

I showed less surprise than I likely should have. Of course the rumors of old Claudius’ death whispered foul play. The primary culprits were thought to be Agrippina and Nero themselves. They announced that the already sickly Claudius died of stomach trouble from mushrooms, one of his favorite dishes. The increasingly useless Senate was overjoyed to have young, fresh blood on the throne after nearly fifteen years of an old stammerer who often alternated between being soporific and bloodthirsty. They didn’t know who Nero was, back then.

“Magic use may be illegal,” Agrippina told me, “but only a fool who would attempt banishing it altogether. One may as well command the Tiber to cease its flow. Better to watch it, command it when needed, and otherwise let it be. We have watched you, Corinna Ferreolus. We are aware that you can identify types of magic—and that no magic can be hidden from you—and now we command you at need.”

For some reason Nero decided now was the time to splutter, “My father was murdered and we need to know how.” The sparks of fear I read off of him added, Before they murder me too.

He wasn’t an impressive sort. Hunched into himself like a scared toddler, not even handsome—though I’m sure a few men have tallied me with such low marks, or at least mused on why I’m still unmarried at twenty-six. But I’m not the Emperor of Rome, and this child—or more accurately his mother—could decide between breaths that I was too useless to live.

Choose your words carefully. “I will do everything in my power to find the murderer, Augusta.”

“The murderer is irrelevant,” she snapped. “We need you to tell us how he did it. And if he can cast spells through walls as well.” Palace walls.

I glanced at Nero once more, but he averted his gaze.

* * *

As they led me through the extensive, oddly dreary halls of the Palatine, I fought the queasiness in my stomach that was born from wondering how long I’d been watched. Since I was nine, the year my magic manifested itself? I’d thought no one but my parents knew, and they weren’t people who would draw much attention—my father a used bookseller of the Equestrian class but at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, my mother a perfectly domestic Roman mater who never strayed from Rome’s centuries-old boundaries.

My magic wasn’t even active. I cast no spells, couldn’t mix potions or elixirs, couldn’t even animate a scroll. (Yes, I’d tried with the occasional forbidden scroll that found it’s way into my father’s bookshop.) What I can do is recognize magic and discern what type it is, no matter how well hidden. Somehow, somewhere along the road of my life, someone had detected that—maybe someone who shared my abilities—and reported me to Caesar. Old Augustus, the founder of the Empire, had banned the use of magic in any form as part of his belief that it was anti-family (along with so many other things). The thought of Imperial spies tracking my life chilled my entire body.

Claudius was kept in another small antechamber which was much better lit than the rest of the Palace—probably for the benefit of the doctors and sorcerers who thrummed about the corpse until Agrippina dismissed them. Young Nero, who would be the cause of so much death in the years to come, quailed at the sight of his adopted father, and barely managed to peek around the corner of the door.

Caesar was not a small man—it was rumored his only great joy in life any more was eating—and on the bed his belly rose above his fleshy white-haired head. The blanket hid his lifelong deformities, like his crookback and clubfoot. There was no blood. There were no wounds or any sign of physical damage aside from the misshapen back Claudius was born with. His own magic still lingered—magic to hide himself, turn others’ gazes from him. No doubt that helped him survive his family when so many other relatives died badly.

I hesitated but finally laid my hands on the body. There was plenty of residual magic, all right, and there was nothing hidden about the fact that it had drained the life from Claudius Caesar as if someone had bled him to death.

The surprise was that the magic was gentle, almost benevolent except for its purpose. It had done its work while easing the sufferings of the victim, as if regretful. Claudius had surely known what was happening to him but the magic had acted as if it was apologizing all the while.

It was also…tiny. Not powerful at all. The caster would have needed to touch Claudius to kill him.

I explained this as best as I could. Nero looked sickened but Agrippina locked her cool gaze on me. “Come,” she ordered. “Get acquainted with the murderer.”

If the thought of my life being tracked chilled me, the tiny prison cells carved out of the wet rock deep beneath the Palace itself were freezing. I’d thought Rome threw criminals it wanted to disappear into the Tullium, the cave prison beneath the Capitoline Hill and the looming Temple of Jupiter. No doubt prisoners with a special purpose were kept under the Palace. I hoped that I wouldn’t be the next special occupant.

The newest prisoner had some social standing in Rome…before now, anyway. He was in his fifties and still wore a toga revealing much of its original pale blue beneath the fresh dirt and grime. No doubt his filth-encrusted sandals had been immaculate a few days prior. His hawk-billed face was draining from a perfect olive to ashen, and there were a few gray spots in his developing beard. His head was in his hands and his gaze barely registered me. His cell was the only one guarded—by sorcerers who’d warded the cell against escape or retaliation, the prickling in my forehead told me.

“His name is Gnaeus Tullius,” Agrippina told me. “An Equestrian grain-seller with a market shop in the Forum and a house on the Quirinal. He was found with my husband when the death was discovered.”

“I never killed Caesar,” Tullius whispered miserably, then turned wide eyes to me. “He was…he was good for my business. I’m a grain merchant. I have ships coming from Egypt. Caesar always made sure the grain got through…in drought, even more so. I prospered. He did me…many favors.”

Agrippina scowled at him as if to point out that a friend of Claudius would not necessarily be a friend to Nero. Or Agrippina.

“How did he get in, Augusta?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the man. I already had an answer about his magical talents but I didn’t like it. I was certain Agrippina would like it even less. Quite honestly, I was stalling for time to check and re-check was I was feeling.

“He claims he was invited. By Claudius.”

“Into Caesar’s bedroom?”

Agrippina lifted an eyebrow.

“I mean…was he summoned to the Palatine? Did he attend the banquet where Caesar took his last meal?”

“Are those details relevant?” she asked me in a tone that told me she thought not.

“The magic used on Caesar is distance-based, Augusta. He needed to get close enough to touch. He couldn’t poison the mushrooms, or as some might do, cast a malevolent spell on the Palace walls so that anyone entering or—”

“He was granted an audience with Caesar earlier in the day. Tullius obviously found a way to stay within the Palace until nightfall.”

“An audience for what reason?”

Agrippina’s lips thinned. “I do not know. Perhaps you should ask him yourself.”

“There’s no need,” I told her. I knew I was about to invite the Augusta’s wrath, but there was no getting around it. I’d checked and re-checked the feeling…or the lack of it.

“Gnaeus Tullius has no magic,” I said quickly.

Her eyes narrowed darkly. “He is hiding it from you.”

“With respect, Augusta, magic cannot be completely hidden. Even the tiniest traces of residue may cling to someone’s clothes, or hair. Tullius is utterly…” I groped for a word. “Mundane.”

She let out a long exhale, and for the first time I saw a human being through a tiny crack of her shield. “Your conclusion,” she said quietly, “matches that of my own sorcerers.” She glared at Tullius. “But he remains without an explanation for his presence in Caesar’s bedchamber. He must be protecting an accomplice.”

Her fury splashed over my physical eyes and my third eye both, but Agrippina was smart enough to not kill the messenger. Yet I knew as well as she did that if Tullius wasn’t the killer then the Imperial family was still threatened.

I didn’t like the thought of my imminent uselessness to the people who kept an eye on me for who knew how many years. Time to tighten my chest and step into the maw, then. “Augusta, with your leave, I would search for Caesar’s killer.”

Her eyebrow lifted again. “How do you propose to accomplish this, girl?”

“The magic used on Caesar is very precise and very…clean. Much more so than most. The purest I’ve ever encountered. If I get close to it, I’ll recognize it immediately.”

“By brushing against everyone in Rome?”

“I’ll start with the Palace. The spell was deep enough to show that Caesar didn’t resist at first, so he must have known his killer. As long as you keep people at a distance you should be safe.”

“I see.” She considered, staring through me. “I will allow your search. Under guard.”

I bowed one final time. As I did so I gently probed Agrippina herself, then Nero, and felt rather better. Agrippina possessed magic but it was dark and sharp like an ancient but well-honed Egyptian sword. Nothing like what killed Claudius.

As for Nero…the boy who would rule the civilized world possessed no magic at all.

* * *

I scoured the Palace for two days with three of Nero’s Praetorian Guards, the Imperial bodyguard, hovering close by: In this case two young men and a grizzled veteran, none of whom had magic. But there was nothing to find. The few magic-born I encountered weren’t possessed of anything resembling a lightness that would be apologetic about murdering the ruler of the world. Nor did I find any residue, though so much wicked power saturated the Palatine Hill that anything pure could have easily been swept under in a heartbeat. Maybe the murderer was counting on that.

“You may continue your search outside the Palace grounds,” Agrippina said, then warned me, “Your discretion in this matter, Corinna Ferreolus, is inextricably tied to your life.”

As if she needed to tell me that.

I was no detective in those days, but I’d read enough tragic plays to know that anyone contemplating murder would have a motive. To kill Caesar your motive would be enormous, not just because of who you were plotting against but how easily you could be caught. And I couldn’t just walk into the Tabularium and start sifting through records. For that I would need a male.

I knew one who would be puppy-dog willing. I just really didn’t want to ask him.

Marcus Ferreolus Xenophanes was my father’s eager 19-year-old assistant in the bookshop. He’d been a farmer in Achaea in Greece…or would’ve been if his farm wasn’t so rocky. He came to Rome seeking his fortune, Romanized his name—including taking Ferreolus as his nomen since my father was his patron—and now spent as much time in the theater as selling books.

He was auditioning for a revival of Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax, about the Greek warrior returning from the Trojan War who imagines his comrades slighted him, makes plans to murder them, then commits suicide from shame when he thinks he’s succeeded. Marcus was trying for the role of Odysseus, which wasn’t likely. I daily found myself trying to ignore him constantly performing personal monologues for me. He even did the women’s parts to prove he’d memorized the whole play: “‘It is the gods who must answer for his death, not these men, no...’”

When he wasn’t working or at the theater, he was following me around. He wouldn’t accept the fact that I preferred reading to entertaining would-be suitors. He interpreted this as my not wanting them while he was around…and that I simply didn’t tell him so because a proper Roman woman would not be so forward, and besides, I must be waiting for him to make his fortune first.

The fantasies of young men can be amusing when their scorching sunbeams aren’t directed straight at me. But I felt guilty for asking him to do my footwork, and success can engender a great deal of forgiveness.

“His name is Sextus Terentius Ausonius,” Marcus told me brightly. “He’s a senator—or he was. He was accused of conspiracy against the emperor…old Claudius always thought people were conspiring against him, you know. The conspiracy charge was dropped so he got to keep his head, but apparently he kept bad company so he was stripped of his position in the Senate and had a villa in Gaul confiscated. The curator at the Tabularium told me Claudius dozed off during Ausonius’ defense and woke up just long enough to pass sentence.” Not unusual for Claudius, I remembered.

“When did all of this happen?”

Marcus grinned. “The day before Claudius died.”

The ex-Senator Ausonius might have been down but he wasn’t out. Even bereft of a Gallic villa he still possessed an estate on the fashionable Esquiline Hill that included a spacious garden-bejeweled courtyard, servants’ outbuildings, and, Marcus and I discovered, numerous female slaves tending him inside. I didn’t much like the way he ogled me in my slave garb too, but it was also a relief that he would probably not think to question that I was a literate female slave taking notes.

He had some magic about him, but it certainly wasn’t pure. It was, I realized with a clench in my stomach, meant to make women turn him a favorable eye.

I’d decided to see just how good of an actor Marcus really was. The theater company he was trying to get on with owed him a few favors because he and my father often provided them with plays either at a discount or as a free loan. So in exchange he was now wearing a fine red toga that would have suited a hungry young lawyer who’d just gained regard in the Basilica Julia’s law courts. Exactly what he pretended to be.

“It’s a disgrace, senator,” Marcus said, “what happened to you. All Rome should be ashamed of your treatment.”

“I agree,” Ausonius said, not bothering to correct Marcus calling him a senator. He was lounging beside a bowl of honey-covered dates he fed himself while a dark-eyed Greek slave was rubbing his shoulders and a brown-skinned Egyptian girl tended to the needs of his feet. “What I want to know is, what can you do for me, young man?”

“I intend to bring your case before the new Caesar. Nero is eager to right the wrongs committed by his predecessor, particularly in the case of someone so important to the functioning of the Empire as you.”

“For a small fee?”

“A reasonable one. Which you needn’t begin paying me until after we’ve spoken to Caesar, and then only if we meet with any success.”

Ausonius gazed at him shrewdly. “I think you are quite naïve, young man.”

“Not naïve, senator—lean and hungry.” Like all actors, I thought. At Ausonius’ chuckle he added, “All I need you to do is tell me the particulars of your punishment, and…er…everything you’ve done since then.”

He lurched up, seeming eager. “Everything?”

“It’s amazing how many harmless activities a man’s enemies can twist until they sound perfectly perfidious, senator. I simply want to…prepare you for the calumnies they may attempt to inflict…”

Overacting, maybe, but Marcus still wasn’t half bad.

Yet Ausonius told us nothing we didn’t already know, satisfied us that he’d been at home through the entire time Claudius could have been murdered, then added a few extra details about his sexual activities that he considered bragging but made me want to scrub my whole body with a slab of pumice.

He also made as if he bore the burden of his punishment bravely. “The only thing I regret from this whole wretched misunderstanding,” he said, “was that I could not be present when the Senate voted to deify Claudius. How I would have reveled in voting no! Especially since there was so much pressure to grant his deification.”

“The vote has already happened?” Marcus asked.

Ausonius wagged his finger. “Take your nose out of your law scrolls long enough to step back into the world now and again, young man! It happened yesterday—and was granted, shamefully. Nero himself neglected that duty, but there was quite a bit of…incentive”—gold, no doubt—“floating around to give the old stutterer his apotheosis.”

“They actually voted for the deification?” Marcus asked with genuine surprise. “Not even Tiberius was so honored.”

“Tiberius spent most of his reign holed away in his villa on Capri diddling young boys,” Ausonius said with distaste, then flashed a smile at his female slaves assuring them they would never face such competition. “As much as I despised Claudius, he did build well in Rome. And he conquered Britannia, a job even Julius Caesar was never able to accomplish.” Both were important as far as Romans were concerned.

The deification of emperors was a strange affair. Romans had always revered their ancestors and worshipped household gods, but with Augustus Caesar they combined those things in a new way: the Father of the Empire became akin to a household god to all Romans. This apotheosis was done by a vote of the Senate, who supposedly represented the voice of the Roman people. Now Claudius was raised to godhood as well, the first since Augustus—apparently with the help of wealthy supporters swinging the vote in his favor. Claudius could be bloodthirsty at times but he could be equally generous.

Marcus asked, “Did the…incentive…for Claudius’ apotheosis start coming before the emperor died, by any chance?”

“Indeed it did. But anyone watching carefully would have known his end was near.”

“Was he sick? More than usual, I mean?”

“The auguries, dear lad! They all pointed to the death of an emperor. Like the lightning bolt that struck and split open the tomb of Drusus, his father. So obvious even the old fool himself may have noticed.”

Ausonius was ogling me again and I felt his cloying magic trying to convince me that he was no old fool and I should excuse myself and do some unclasping on my way to his bedroom. I gave Marcus our prearranged signal to leave, so he bowed floridly and made his exeunt from the senator’s scarlet stage.

We were followed as soon as we started back down the Esquiline.

He was a large cloaked figure with what looked to be a round face beneath the hood. He tracked us all the way down the hill to the Forum—unfortunately we had to try losing him on foot, since Claudius’ law forbidding wheeled traffic in Rome during the day still held. We crossed through the throngs of the Forum…and found him facing us on the other side.

I reached out to detect his magic and doubled over. It wasn’t painful but it was…massive as the City of Rome, Italy, the Empire. All-encompassing as if I was surrounded by all the millions of Roman citizens. I couldn’t breathe. Marcus had to grab me and pull me away to a temple’s cool, shaded steps before I suffocated. When my blurry eyes cleared the cloaked figure was nowhere to be seen.

I told him what I’d experienced and then added, “I couldn’t identify his magic.”

“He hid it from you?”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t…choose. It was as if he had dozens of different powers at hand. But they swirled about me so fast…I couldn’t tell what…”

Realization slowly dawned on me. “Whoever he is, he may be the most powerful sorcerer in the world.”

Marcus swallowed hard but gamely volunteered to stay by my side. Puppy though he can be, his courage couldn’t help but be endearing—not to mention a little frightening since I didn’t want him hurt. “What now?” he finally asked.

I took a deep breath. “Now,” I said, “I talk to Caesar and the Imperial Mother.”

Marcus protested my going alone, but I told him I wanted him outside of things in case something went wrong. I didn’t add that Agrippina’s idea of my life being inextricably tied to discretion might not include bringing a 19-year-old bookselling would-be tragedian in on the investigation.

* * *

We were, of course, followed. This time I probed the cloaked figure’s magic delicately, certain he must be aware of my actions, and equally uncertain why he allowed himself to be seen at all. But even just dipping my fingertip into his magic would have been awe-inspiring if I hadn’t been his quarry—I felt at least a dozen different kinds, all distinct: healing, illumination, seeking…hiding, so why didn’t he hide himself? None remotely resembled what killed Claudius.

He stopped when I entered the Palace. So there might be something, some ward, keeping him from entering. He didn’t look overly concerned, though, if you could guess a look through a shadowed hood. He simply gazed this way and that at the Forum’s bustle below the Palatine as if seeing it all for the first time.

When I reported the mega-powerful sorcerer to Agrippina and Nero I expected Nero to hunch up in terror, as he did, but Agrippina went ashen. Her voice was admirably calm. “You have done well,” she said, “and I will arrange for payment to be sent to you discreetly. The Guard will escort you out of the Palace.”

I forgot to bow, but instead spilled out with, “You know the identity of the sorcerer? Did he kill Caesar…?”

“Your exit, girl, was not meant to be at a time of your choosing.”

The sorcerer’s presence frightened her enough to cease the search, I realized.

I left under the guard of just one Praetorian, the grizzled older Imperial guardsman from before. His chest puffed up proudly under his quarter moon-engraved breastplate, his shoulders squared under his red cape, his hands kept a tight grip on his shield like he was holding the emperor himself. “Thank you, Lady,” he said quietly without looking at me on the way out, “for your service to Caesar.”

His voice startled me. The Guard was famous for protecting emperors—or making them, as they had with Claudius—not conversing with strangers. “You’re welcome, Praetorian,” was all I could think to say.

“Tribune,” he corrected me, and I was astounded that Agrippina sent me with someone of such high rank. Or should I have been worried? “You see, Claudius, he was good to us…and I was one of them who found him after Caligula was removed and I helped proclaim him to the Senate. So I wanted to know who did him in. And Nero, he gave us all in the Guard raises, so I’d like to see him well shielded.”

We walked another moment in silence, me wondering where all this was leading, if anywhere. Then he continued, “I wouldn’t mind wringing Tullius’ neck myself, tell you the truth. Shame about his daughter, though.”

“His daughter? What happened?”

“She went missing the same night her father helped do in Claudius. She came with him that day to the Palace when he was summoned before the emperor.”

“Helping to argue whatever Tullius meant to argue before Caesar?”

The tribune snorted. “Not likely. She was only about nine years old. Same as my own, come to that. No, must’ve been something official—and not official in the way Tiberius liked the little kids he summoned, if you get my meaning.”

I stopped cold. Suddenly it all fit: The magic used in Claudius’ murder, Tullius’ presence, the Senate’s vote on Claudius’ deification, the missing girl, the cloaked sorcerer, even Marcus’ stumbling monologues from Ajax. Or they nearly did.

“Tribune, could I visit Tullius one more time?”

The elder man glanced around. “The Augusta said to escort you out…”

“It’s vital. I may have solved this murder, but I’m missing one piece.”

“All right then. Be it on my head—but it is my job to guard Caesar, after all, and I’ve done it through three of them. Aside from Caligula, of course, since we had to kill that one.”

Tullius had obviously been subjected to some intense questioning; his face was bruised and his skin battered under the shredded toga. “He hasn’t said anything about an accomplice,” the Tribune told me.

I gripped the bars, leaned forward, and said quietly, “Gnaeus Tullius, I know who you’re protecting. You don’t have to worry about her. The child will have…a great patron watching out for her. But why did she come with you to the Palace?”

His eyes went wide an instant before he burst into tears. “Numina, I failed you!” he cried. I assumed Numina was his daughter. “She was…my last hope.”

“For what?”

“My family used to be great. We had power and status in Rome. We gave birth to the orator Cicero.” Marcus Tullius Cicero, I remembered his full name was. “But after Cicero was assassinated…his son a drunken tossabout…we fell from grace, and I’m the last of that Tullius line…”

“And your daughter is your only child,” I guessed.

He nodded dismally. “Then came the message. The Pontifex Maximus was considering her to be a Vestal.”

I sucked in a breath. Normally that would be a great honor—particularly since the Pontifex Maximus also happened to be Claudius himself—but it would likely doom Tullius’ chances to continue his line. A Vestal spends thirty years in the service of the sacred flame that guarded Rome—and all that time a sacred virgin. The punishment for breaking that ironclad chastity rule was being buried alive.

“Why not adopt an heir?” I asked Tullius.

“Not my blood,” Tullius muttered. “Not the same blood that ran through the veins of Cicero.”

“So you brought her before Claudius to plea that she not be made a Vestal,” I said. “You wanted the emperor to see her face.”

Finally Tullius shook his head. “Caesar agreed to grant my request, in exchange for a favor. To be touched by her magic.”

“What does her magic do?”

“It gives someone what they want most in the world. But when she touched Caesar he…he…And then the sorcerers found…me.”

“Where is she, Tullius? Where is Numina?”

“She touched me, too.”

“Then why are you still in this cell?”

He smiled faintly. “My greatest wish wasn’t that I escape. It was that Numina would be hidden from anyone trying to find her.”

* * *

Agrippina was not overjoyed to see me again less than an hour after my dismissal until I explained my discovery. All except the identity of the sorcerer—but I figured she knew it already or he wouldn’t have jellied her otherwise indomitable spine.

“All right, Claudius!” I called. “You can pull down your hood now!” I thought Nero was about to wet his toga, and Agrippina didn’t look much more continent.

After a moment the air shimmered and the cloak figured appeared. He actually hesitated before pulling the hood back, then averted his gaze from his wife and adopted son and looked instead at me. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he apologized. “I’m new at godhood. I was curious to see if you’d figure it all out.”

“You didn’t hurt me, Caesar,” I assured him. “Your power was just…overwhelming.”

The sight of him was nearly overwhelming now. Young and slender minus his lifelong physical deformities—the crookback, the clubfoot, legs not quite the same size—Claudius was stunningly handsome.

“I told you!” Agrippina snapped at Nero. “I told you this would happen if you didn’t fight the Senate’s desire to deify the old fool!”

“Keep your tongue, woman,” Claudius warned with a sneer, “before I turn it into a spider! I can do that now, you know.”

As Ausonius guessed, Claudius was indeed aware of the auguries portending his death, and decided to take matters into his own hands. Particularly since he suspected—though I didn’t say this aloud—that Agrippina and Nero were preparing to do him in anyway. Then as if the Fates themselves had decreed it, Gnaeus Tullius came supplicating a favor involving his daughter Numina—a daughter, the emperor would know, carrying a magical talent for granting wishes. Claudius quietly rescinded Numina’s Vestal candidacy. The death Numina privately, guiltily granted was easy and quick, just as Claudius wanted—but not so quick that Tullius escaped. At the last instant Tullius must have ordered Numina to touch him and grant his greatest wish—keeping Numina safe. So she literally disappeared.

“The wealthy benefactor influencing the Senate vote on your deification,” I said to Claudius, “was you.”

“I couldn’t take gold with me,” he reminded. “And if all worked out as I planned, I wasn’t going to need gold anyway.”

What he planned on was that the Senate would deify him—and so he would go from an aged, feeble, physically deformed and mentally slipping emperor to a strong, healthy, freshly-minted god.

Claudius smiled wickedly. “As did my grandfather, Octavian. Oh, how he could never resist meddling in mortal affairs the way he did when he was alive.”

“No, he can’t,” Agrippina murmured sourly.

“Grandfather doesn’t mind teaching me the things I’ll need to know about being a deity,” Claudius added cheerfully, “now that he doesn’t have to put up with my stutter or my drooling or any of that nasty business I was born with.”

He turned a scowl towards Agrippina and Nero. The boy backed away, nearly collapsing. “And if you don’t want me interfering mightily in your affairs, my dear wife and son,” he said, “you will release Tullius and then forget you ever knew about Numina. I have in mind to make myself their patron deity to show my gratitude. Come, child.” He outstretched his hand and there was another shimmering, and a little dark-haired doe-eyed girl—Numina, I assumed—appeared in a pretty blue dress much the color Tullius’ toga had been before prison. “I’ll take you home.”

The deified Caesar flashed his teeth at his family. “And I still may drop in you from time to time anyway.”

“Claudius, why didn’t you just release Tullius yourself?” I asked.

He gave a very human-like shrug. “Agrippina would have just come after him again. Besides, Corinna, haven’t you read history? The gods can interfere, sometimes intervene, but rarely are they…we…allowed to take direct action. Otherwise it’s more likely the Trojans would have won the Trojan War. By the way, I think your friend Marcus may do well in Ajax. ‘A man is nothing but breath and shadow’,” he quoted.

“That’s from Sophocles’ Ajax the Locrian,” I told him. “An earlier play.”

He scowled, then smiled mischievously. “Yes, well, young lady, I do know that ‘Of all human ills, greatest is fortune’s wayward tyranny’ is from the Sophocles your young man is about to perform…”

“He’s not my young man.”

“Not yet. I also know the opus includes ‘Men of ill judgment oft ignore the good that lies within their hands, till they have lost it.’”

“What are you getting at, Caesar?” Though the knot in my stomach warned I knew this answer as well.

“My dear young Corinna Ferreolus, I am suggesting that you be my next mortal—that I become your patron deity. With my gratitude as well.”

I agreed. Eventually it all came to the good, even if Claudius can be annoying from time to time. But at the time I acquiesced only because I figured it would be a bad idea to even politely turn down a god making this request face to face.

* * *

As Rome’s newest addition to her pantheon predicted, Marcus did do quite well in Ajax, playing Ajax’s son Eurysaces. Sextus Ausonius himself complimented Marcus’ performance though he found himself another lawyer. Eventually the little company got to be not so little and took their production to the Theater of Pompey, by which time Marcus had left my father’s employ. But he always bought his books from us, I always gave him a discount on plays, he always made sure I had free tickets—and I always made sure I used them.

Marcus, happily, matured in the next few years. I don’t know why I was so surprised—at either his maturity or my reaction to it. But then again, as Sophocles also wrote in Ajax, “Many are the things that man”—or woman—“seeing must understand. Not seeing, how shall he”—or she—“know what lies in the hand of time to come?”

We also had two particular blessings at our wedding from those who knew something about such things. Claudius only Marcus and I could see. Numina, then a young woman, touched both of us to give us our greatest wishes—though as far as I’ve been able to tell since then, nothing happened. Or maybe it is that with our marriage, children, books and the theater, and even the cases I found myself working on later for the Imperial Palace, Numina’s magic was a welcome gift but not a necessary one.

* * *

Danny Adams is the author of the historical novel Lest Camelot Fall (Musa, 2014) and co-author, with Philip Jose Farmer, of the short science fiction novel The City Beyond Play (PS, 2007 / e-book 2012). Some of his shorter work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Asimov's, Ideomancer, Mythic Delirium, Not One of Us, Paradox, Space and Time, Star*Line, and Strange Horizons. He is a reference librarian at Ferrum College deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and reviews science fiction and fantasy books for Publishers Weekly.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

I know this isn't all that helpful a response, but the answer really is "everywhere". Often they start based on a question - usually a "What if?" question - but from that point on I might incorporate anything that strikes me as usable, a snatch or character quirk here, a tidbit or sidelong glance at something there. Sooner or later all of these pieces get stitched together into a story.

What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?

First, the same advice I give to any writer: Build your world thoroughly, build your characters thoroughly, and then once those are done, be as persistent about writing and publishing as you can. I've known plenty of writers who were a lot more talented than me, but they're not published because they weren't nearly as persistent as me.

Second: Fantasy is all about imagination. Don't be afraid to use any of yours!