“Well, Antonius,” the magistrate said, “you are without question a licentious and disreputable young man. You have disgraced a noble patrician name and sullied your character in the lowest of pursuits, and we have received testimony that you are not only a drunkard and a gambler—but an outright murderer as well.”
With an opening like that, the old vulture was sending him to the block for sure. Antony shrugged, philosophically; he’d known it was unlikely his family could have scraped together enough of a bribe to get him let go. Claudius’s family was a damn sight richer than his; and in any case he could hardly imagine his stepfather going to the trouble.
“Have you anything to say for yourself?” the magistrate said.
“He was a tedious bastard?” Antony offered, cheerfully.
The magistrate scowled at him. “Your debts stand at nearly 250 talents—”
“Really?” Antony interrupted. “Are you sure? Gods, I had no idea. Where does the money go?”
Tapping his fingers, the magistrate said, “Do you know, I would dearly love to send you to the arena. It is certainly no less than you deserve.”
“The son of a senator of Rome?” Antony said, in mock appall. “They’d have you on the block, next.”
“I imagine these circumstances might be considered mitigating,” the magistrate said. “However, your family has petitioned for mercy most persuasively, so you have an alternative.”
Well, that was promising. “And that is?” he said.
The magistrate told him.
“Are you out of your mind?” Antony said. “How is that mercy? It’s twelve men to kill a dragon, even if it’s small.”
“They did not petition for your life,” the magistrate said patiently. “That would have been considerably more expensive. Dragon-slaying is an honorable death, and generally quick, from my understanding; and will legally clear your debts. Unless you would prefer to commit suicide?” he inquired.
Dragons could be killed, guards might be bribed to let you slip away, but a sword in your own belly was final. “No, thanks anyway,” Antony said. “So where’s the beast? Am I off to Germanica to meet my doom, or is it Gaul?”
“You’re not even leaving Italy,” the magistrate said, already back to scribbling in his books, the heartless bugger. “The creature came down from the north a week ago with all its hoard and set itself up just over the upper reaches of the Tiber, not far from Placentia.”
Antony frowned. “Did you say its hoard?”
“Oh yes. Quite remarkable, from all reports. If you do kill it, you may be able to pay off even your debts, extraordinary as they are.”
As if he’d waste perfectly good gold in the hand on anything that stupid. “Just how old a beast are we talking about, exactly?”
The magistrate snorted. “We sent a man to count its teeth, but he seems to be doing it from inside the creature’s belly. A good four to six elephantweight from local reports, if that helps you.”
“Discord gnaw your entrails,” Antony said. “You can’t possibly expect me to kill the thing alone.”
“No,” the magistrate agreed, “but the dragon hunter division of the ninth is two weeks’ march away, and the populace is getting restless in the meantime. It will be as well to make a gesture.” He looked up again. “You will be escorted there by a personal guard provided by Fulvius Claudius Sullius’s family. Do you care to reconsider?”
“Discord gnaw my entrails,” Antony said, bitterly.
All right, now this was getting damned unreasonable. “It breathes fire?” Antony said. The nearest valley was a blackened ruin, orchard trees and houses charred into lumps. A trail of debris led away into the hills, where a thin line of smoke rose steadily into the air.
“Looks like,” Addo, the head of the guards, said, more enthusiastically than was decent. Anyone would’ve thought he’d won all the man’s drinking money last night, instead of just half. There hadn’t even been a chance to use it to buy a whore for a last romp.
The guards marched Antony down to the mouth of the ravine—the only way in or out, because the gods had forsaken him—and took off the chains. “Change your mind?” Addo said, smirking, while the other two held out the shield and spear. “It’s not too late to run onto it, instead.”
“Kiss my arse.” Antony took the arms and threw the man his purse. “Spill a little blood on the altar of Mars for me, and have a drink in my memory,” he said, “and I’ll see you all in Hell.”
They grinned and saluted him. Antony stopped around the first curve of the ravine and waited a while, then glanced back: But the unnaturally dedicated pedicatores were sitting there, dicing without a care in the world.
All right: Nothing for it. He went on into the ravine.
It got hotter the further in he went. His spear-grip was soaked with sweat by the last curve, and then he was at the end, waves of heat like a bath-furnace shimmering out to meet him. The dragon was sleeping in the ravine, and merda sancta, the thing was the size of a granary. It was a muddy sort of green with a scattering of paler green stripes and spots and spines, not like what he’d expected; there was even one big piebald patch of pale green splotchy on its muzzle. More importantly, its back rose up nearly to the height of the ravine walls, and its head looked bigger than a wagon-cart.
The dragon snuffled a little in its nose and then grumbled, shifting. Pebbles rained down from the sides of the ravine walls and pattered against its hide of scales lapped upon scales, with the enameled look of turtle-shell. There was a stack of bones heaped neatly in a corner, stripped clean—and behind that a ragged cave in the cliff wall, silver winking where some of the coin had spilled out of the mouth, much good would it do him.
“Sweet Venus, you’ve left me high and dry this time,” Antony said, almost with a laugh. He didn’t see how even a proper company would manage this beast. Its neck alone looked ten cubits long, more than any spear could reach. And breathing fire—
No sense in dragging the thing out. He tossed aside his useless shield—a piece of wood against this monster, a joke—and took a step towards the dragon but the shield clattering against the ravine wall startled the creature. It jerked its head up and hissed, squinty-eyed, and Antony froze. Noble resignation be damned; he plastered himself back against the rock face as the dragon heaved itself up to its feet.
It took two steps past him, stretching out its head with spikes bristling to sniff suspiciously at the shield. The thing filled nearly all the ravine. Its side was scarcely arm’s length from him, scales rising and falling with breath, and sweat was already breaking out upon his face from the fantastic heat: like walking down the road in midsummer with a heavy load and no water.
The shoulder joint where the foreleg met the body was directly before his face. Antony stared at it. Right in the armpit, like some sort of hideous goiter, there was a great swollen bulge where the scales had been spread out and stretched thin. It was vaguely translucent and the flesh around it gone puffy.
The dragon was still busy with the shield, nosing at it and rattling it against the rock. Antony shrugged, fatalistically, and taking hold of the butt of his spear with both hands took a lunge at the vulnerable spot, aiming as best he could for the center of the body.
The softened flesh yielded so easily the spear sank in until both his hands were up against the flesh. Pus and blood spurted over him, stinking to high heaven, and the dragon reared up howling, lifting him his height again off the ground before the spear ripped back out of its side and he came down heavily. Antony hit the ground and crawled towards the wall choking and spitting while rocks and dust came down on him. “Holy Juno!” he yelled, cowering, as one boulder the size of a horse smashed into the ground not a handspan from his head.
He rolled and tucked himself up against the wall and wiped his face, staring up in awe while the beast went on bellowing and thrashing from side to side above, gouts of flame spilling from its jaws. Blood was jetting from the ragged tear in its side like a fountain, buckets of it, running in a thick black stream through the ravine dust. Even as he watched, the dragon’s head started to sag in jerks: down and pulled back up, down again, and down, and then its hindquarters gave out under it. It crashed slowly to the ground with a last long hiss of air squeezing out of its lungs, and the head fell to the ground with a thump and lolled away.
Antony lay there staring at it a while. Then he shoved away most of the rocks on him and dragged up to his feet, swaying, and limped to stand over the gaping, cloudy-eyed head. A little smoke still trailed from its jaws, a quenched fire.
“Sweet, most-gracious, blessed, gentle Venus,” he said, looking up, “I’ll never doubt your love again.”
He picked up his spear and staggered down the ravine in his bloodsoaked clothing and found the guards all standing and frozen, clutching their swords. They stared at him as if he were a demon. “No need to worry,” Antony said, cheerfully. “None of it’s mine. Any of you have a drink? My mouth is unspeakably foul.”
“What in stinking Hades is that?” Secundus said, as the third of the guards came out of the cave staggering under an enormous load: a smooth-sided oval boulder.
“It’s an egg, you bleeding capupeditum,” Addo said. “Bash it into a bloody rock.”
“Stop there, you damned fools, it stands to reason it’s worth something,” Antony said. “Put it in the cart.”
They’d salvaged the cart from the wreckage of the village and lined it with torn sacking, and to prove the gods loved him, even found a couple of sealed wine jars in a cellar. “Fellows,” Antony said, spilling a libation to Venus while the guards loaded up the last of the treasure, “pull some cups out of that. Tomorrow we’re going to buy every whore in Rome. But tonight, we’re going to drink ourselves blind.”
They cheered him, grinning, and didn’t look too long at the heap of coin and jewels in the cart. He wasn’t fooled; they’d have cut his throat and been halfway to Gaul by now, if they hadn’t been worried about the spear he’d kept securely in his hand, the one stained black with dragon blood.
That was all right. He could drink any eight men under the table in unwatered wine.
He left the three of them snoring in the dirt and whistled as the mules plodded down the road, quickly: They were all too happy to be leaving the dragon-corpse behind. Or most of it, anyway: he’d spent the afternoon hacking off the dragon’s head. It sat on top of the mound of treasure now, teeth overlapping the lower jaw as it gradually sagged in on itself. It stank, but it made an excellent moral impression when he drove into the next town over.
The really astonishing thing was that now, when he had more gold than water, he didn’t need to pay for anything. Men quarreled for the right to buy him a drink and whores let him have it for free. He couldn’t even lose it gambling: Every time he sat down at the tables, his dice always came up winners.
He bought a house in the best part of the city, right next to that pompous windbag Cato on one side and Claudius’s uncle on the other, and threw parties that ran dusk until dawn. For the daylight hours, he filled the courtyard with a menagerie of wild animals: a lion and a giraffe that growled and snorted at each other from the opposite ends where they were chained up, and even a hippopotamus that some Nubian dealer brought him.
He had the dragon skull mounted in the center of the yard and set the egg in front of it. No one would buy the damn thing, so that was all he could do with it. “Fifty sesterces to take it off your hands,” the arena manager said, after one look at the egg and the skull together.
“What?” Antony said. “I’m not going to pay you. I could just smash the thing.”
The manager shrugged. “You don’t know how far along it is. Could be it’s old enough to live a while. They come out ready to fight,” he added. “Last time we did a hatching, it killed six men.”
“And how many damned tickets did it sell?” Antony said, but the bastard was unmoved.
It made a good centerpiece, anyway, and it was always entertaining to mention the arena manager’s story to one of his guests when they were leaning against the egg and patting the shell, and watching how quickly they scuttled away. Personally, Antony thought it was just as likely the thing was dead; it had been sitting there nearly six months now, and not a sign of cracking.
He on the other hand was starting to feel a little—well. Nonsensical to miss the days after he’d walked out of his stepfather’s house for good, when some unlucky nights he’d had to wrestle three men in a street game for the coin to eat—since no one would give him so much as the end of a loaf of bread on credit—or even the handful of times he’d let some fat rich lecher paw at him just to get a bed for the night.
But there just wasn’t any juice in it anymore. A stolen jar of wine, after running through the streets ahead of the city cohorts for an hour, had tasted ten times as sweet as any he drank now, and all his old friends had turned into toadying dogs, who flattered him clumsily. The lion got loose and ate the giraffe, and then he had to get rid of the hippo after it started spraying shit everywhere, which began to feel like an omen. He’d actually picked up a book the other day: sure sign of desperation.
He tried even more dissipation: an orgy of two days and nights where no one was allowed to sleep, but it turned out even he had limits, and sometime in the second night he had found them. He spent the next three days lying in a dark room with his head pounding fit to burst. It was August, and the house felt like a baking-oven. His sheets were soaked through with sweat and he still couldn’t bear to move.
He finally crawled out of his bed and let his slaves scrub and scrape him and put him into a robe—of Persian silk embroidered with gold, because he didn’t own anything less gaudy anymore—and then he went out into the courtyard and collapsed on a divan underneath some orange trees. “No, Jupiter smite you all, get away from me and be quiet,” he snarled at the slaves.
The lion lifted its head and snarled at him, in turn. Antony threw the wine jug at the animal and let himself collapse back against the divan, throwing an arm up over his eyes.
He slept again a while, and woke to someone nudging his leg. “I told you mange-ridden dogs to leave me the hell alone,” he muttered.
The nudging withdrew for a moment. Then it came back again. “Sons of Dis, I’m going to have you flogged until you—” Antony began, rearing up, and stopped.
“Is there anything more to eat?” the dragon asked.
He stared at it. Its head was about level with his, and it blinked at him with enormous green eyes, slit-pupilled. It was mostly green, like the last one, except with blue spines. He looked past it into the courtyard. Bits and chunks of shell were littering the courtyard all over, and the lion—”Where the hell is the lion?” Antony said.
“I was hungry,” the dragon said, unapologetically.
“You ate the lion?” Antony said, still half dazed, and then he stared at the dragon again. “You ate the lion,” he repeated, in dawning wonder.
“Yes, and I would like some more food now,” the dragon said.
“Hecate’s teats, you can have anything you want,” Antony said, already imagining the glorious spectacle of his next party. “Maracles!” he yelled. “Damn you, you lazy sodding bastard of a slave, fetch me some goats here! How the hell can you talk?” he demanded of the dragon.
“You can,” the dragon pointed out, as if that explained anything.
Antony thought about it and shrugged. Maybe it did. He reached out tentatively to pat the dragon’s neck. It felt sleek and soft as leather. “What a magnificent creature you are,” he said. “We’ll call you—Vincitatus.”
It turned out that Vincitatus was a female, according to the very nervous master of Antony’s stables, when the man could be dragged in to look at her. She obstinately refused to have her name changed, however, so Vincitatus it was, and Vici for short. She also demanded three goats a day, a side helping of something sweet, and jewelry, which didn’t make her all that different from most of the other women of Antony’s acquaintance. Everyone was terrified of her. Half of Antony’s slaves ran away. Tradesmen wouldn’t come to the house after he had them in to the courtyard, and neither would most of his friends.
It was magnificent.
Vici regarded the latest fleeing tradesman disapprovingly. “I didn’t like that necklace anyway,” she said. “Antony, I want to go flying.”
“I’ve told you, my most darling one, some idiot guard with a bow will shoot you,” he said, peeling an orange; he had to do it for himself, since the house slaves had been bolting in packs until he promised they didn’t have to come to her. “Don’t worry, I’ll have more room for you soon.”
He’d already had most of the statuary cleared out of the courtyard, but it wasn’t going to do for long; she had already tripled in size, after two weeks. Fortunately, he’d already worked out a splendid solution.
“Dominus,” Maracles called nervously, from the house. “Cato is here.”
“Splendid!” Antony called back. “Show him in. Cato, my good neighbor,” he said, rising from the divan as the old man stopped short at the edge of the courtyard. “I thank you so deeply for coming. I would have come myself, but you see, the servants get so anxious when I leave her alone.”
“I did not entirely credit the rumors, but I see you really have debauched yourself out of your mind at last,” Cato said. “No, thank you, I will not come out; the beast can eat you, first, and then it will be so sozzled I can confidently expect to make my escape.”
“I am not going to eat Antony,” Vici said indignantly, and Cato stared at her.
“Maraceles, bring Cato a chair, there,” Antony said, sprawling back on the divan, and he stroked Vici’s neck.
“I didn’t know they could speak,” Cato said.
“You should hear her recite the Priapea, there’s a real ring to it,” Antony said. “Now, why I asked you—”
“That poem is not very good,” Vici said, interrupting. “I liked that one you were reading at your house better, about all the fighting.”
“What?” Cato said.
“What?” Antony said.
“I heard it over the wall, yesterday,” Vici said. “It was much more exciting, and,” she added, “the language is more interesting. The other one is all just about fornicating and buggering, over and over, and I cannot tell any of the people in it apart.”
Antony stared at her, feeling vaguely betrayed.
Cato snorted. “Well, Antony, if you are mad enough to keep a dragon, at least you have found one that has better taste than you do.”
“Yes, she is most remarkable,” Antony said, with gritted teeth. “But as you can see, we are getting a little cramped, so I’m afraid—”
“Do you know any others like that?” Vici asked Cato.
“What, I suppose you want me to recite Ennius’s Annals for you here and now?” Cato said.
“Yes, please,” she said, and settled herself comfortably.
“Er,” Antony said. “Dearest heart—”
“Shh, I want to hear the poem,” she said.
Cato looked rather taken aback, but then he looked at Antony—and smiled. And then the bastard started in on the whole damned thing.
Antony fell asleep somewhere after the first half-hour and woke up again to find them discussing the meter or the symbolism or whatnot. Cato had even somehow talked the house servants into bringing him out a table and wine and bread and oil, which was more than they’d had the guts to bring out for him the last two weeks.
Antony stood up. “If we might resume our business,” he said pointedly, with a glare in her direction.
Vincitatus did not take the hint. “Cato could stay to dinner.”
“No, he could not,” Antony said.
“So what was this proposition of yours, Antony?” Cato said.
“I want to buy your house,” Antony said, flatly. He’d meant to come at it roundabout, and enjoy himself leading Cato into a full understanding of the situation, but at this point he was too irritated to be subtle.
“That house was built by my great-grandfather,” Cato said. “I am certainly not going to sell it to you to be used for orgies.”
Antony strolled over to the table and picked up a piece of bread to sop into the oil. Well, he could enjoy this, at least. “You might have difficulty finding any other buyer. Or any guests, for that matter, once word gets out.”
Cato snorted. “On the contrary,” he said. “I imagine the value will shortly be rising, as soon as you have gone.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have plans to go anywhere,” Antony said.
“Oh, never fear,” Cato said. “I think the Senate will make plans for you.”
“Cato says there is a war going on in Gaul,” Vincitatus put in. “Like in the poem. Wouldn’t it be exciting to go see a war?”
“What?” Antony said.
“Well, Antonius,” the magistrate said, “I must congratulate you.”
“For surviving the last sentence?” Antony said.
“No,” the magistrate said. “For originality. I don’t believe I have ever faced this particular offense before.”
“There’s no damned law against keeping a dragon!”
“There is now,” the magistrate said. He looked down at his papers. “There is plainly no question of guilt in this case, it only remains what is to be done with the creature. The priests of the temple of Jupiter suggest that the beast would be most highly regarded as a sacrifice, if you can arrange the mechanics—”
“They can go bugger a herd of goats,” Antony snarled. “I’ll set her loose in the Forum, first—no. No, wait, I didn’t mean that.” He took a deep breath and summoned up a smile and leaned across the table. “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”
“You don’t have enough money for that even now,” the magistrate said.
“Look,” Antony said, “I’ll take her to my villa at Stabiae—” Seeing the eyebrow rising, he amended, “—or I’ll buy an estate near Arminum. Plenty of room, she won’t be a bother to anyone—”
“Until you run out or money or drink yourself to death,” the magistrate said. “You do realize the creatures live a hundred years?”
“They do?” Antony said blankly.
“The evidence also informs me,” the magistrate added, “that she is already longer than the dragon of Brundisium, which killed nearly half the company of the fourteenth legion.”
“She’s as quiet as a lamb?” Antony tried.
The magistrate just looked at him.
“Gaul?” Antony said.
“Gaul,” the magistrate said.
“I hope you’re happy,” he said bitterly to Vincitatus as his servants joyfully packed his things, except for the few very unhappy ones he was taking along.
“Yes,” she said, eating another goat.
He’d been ordered to leave at night, under guard, but when the escort showed up, wary soldiers in full armor and holding their spears, they discovered a new difficulty: she couldn’t fit into the street anymore.
“All right, all right, no need to make a fuss,” Antony said, waving her back into the courtyard. The house on the other side had only leaned over a little. “So she’ll fly out to the Porta Aurelia and meet us on the other side.”
“We’re not letting the beast go spreading itself over the city,” the centurion said. “It’ll grab some lady off the street, or an honorable merchant.”
He was for killing her right there and then, instead. Antony was for knocking him down, and did so. The soldiers pulled him off and shoved him up against the wall of the house, swords out.
Then Vincitatus put her head out, over the wall, and said, “I think I have worked out how to breathe fire, Antony. Would you like to see?”
The soldiers all let go and backed away hastily in horror.
“I thought you said you couldn’t,” Antony hissed, looking up at her; it had been a source of much disappointment to him.
“I can’t,” she said. “But I thought it would make them let you go.” She reached down and scooped him up off the street in one curled forehand, reached the other and picked up one of the squealing baggage-loaded pack mules. And then she leaped into the air.
“Oh, Jupiter eat your liver, you mad beast,” Antony said, and clutched at her talons as the ground fell away whirling.
“See, is this not much nicer than trudging around on the ground?” she asked.
“Look out!” he yelled, as the Temple of Saturn loomed up unexpectedly.
“Oh!” she said, and dodged. There was a faint crunch of breaking masonry behind them.
“I’m sure that was a little loose anyway,” she said, flapping hurriedly higher.
He had to admit it made for quicker traveling, and at least she’d taken the mule loaded with the gold. She hated to let him spend any of it, though, and in any case he had to land her half a mile off and walk if he wanted there to be anyone left to buy things from. Finally he lost patience and started setting her down with as much noise as she could manage right outside the nicest villa or farmhouse in sight, when they felt like a rest. Then he let her eat the cattle, and made himself at home in the completely abandoned house for the night.
That first night, sitting outside with a bowl of wine and a loaf of bread, he considered whether he should even bother going on to Gaul. He hadn’t quite realized how damned fast it would be, traveling by air. “I suppose we could just keep on like this,” he said to her idly. “They could chase us with one company after another for the rest of our days and never catch us.”
“That doesn’t sound right to me at all,” she said. “One could never have eggs, always flying around madly from one place to another. And I want to see the war.”
Antony shrugged cheerfully and drank the rest of the wine. He was half looking forward to it himself. He thought he’d enjoy seeing the look on the general’s face when he set down with a dragon in the yard and sent all the soldiers running like mice. Anyway it would be a damned sight harder to get laid if he were an outlaw with a dragon.
Two weeks later, they cleared the last alpine foothills and came into Gaul at last. And that was when Antony realized he didn’t know the first damn thing about where the army even was.
He didn’t expect some Gallic wife to tell him, either, so they flew around the countryside aimlessly for two weeks, raiding more farmhouses—inedible food, no decent wine, and once some crazy old woman hadn’t left her home and nearly gutted him with a cooking knife. Antony fled hastily back out to Vincitatus, ducking hurled pots and imprecations, and they went back aloft in a rush.
“This is not a very nice country,” Vincitatus said, critically examining the scrawny pig she had snatched. She ate it anyway and added, crunching, “And that is a strange cloud over there.”
It was smoke, nine or ten pillars of it, and Antony had never expected to be glad to see a battlefield in all his life. His stepfather had threatened to send him to the borders often enough, and he’d run away from home as much as to avoid that fate as anything else, nearly. He didn’t mind a good fight, or bleeding a little in a good cause, but as far as he was concerned, that limited the occasions to whenever it might benefit himself.
The fighting was still going on, and the unmusical clanging reached them soon. Vincitatus picked up speed as she flew on towards it, and then picked up still more, until Antony was squinting his eyes to slits against the tearing wind, and he only belatedly realized she wasn’t going towards the camp, or the rear of the lines; she was headed straight for the enemy.
“Wait, what are you—” he started, too late, as her sudden stooping dive ripped the breath out of his lungs. He clung on to the rope he’d tied around her neck, which now felt completely inadequate, and tried to plaster himself to her hide.
She roared furiously, and Antony had a small moment of satisfaction as he saw the shocked and horrified faces turning up towards them from the ground, on either side of the battle, and then she was ripping into the Gauls, claws tearing up furrows through the tightly packed horde of them.
She came to ground at the end of a run and whipped around, which sent him flying around to the underside of her neck, still clinging to the rope for a moment as he swung suspended. Then his numb fingers gave way and dumped him down to the ground, as she took off for another go. He staggered up, wobbling from one leg to the other, dizzy, and when he managed to get his feet under him, he stopped and stared: the entire Gaullish army was staring right back.
“Hades me fellat,” Antony said. There were ten dead men lying down around him, where Vincitatus had shaken them off her claws. He grabbed a sword and a shield that was only a little cracked, and yelled after her, “Come back and get me out of here, you damned daughter of Etna!”
Vincitatus was rampaging through the army again, and didn’t give any sign she’d heard, or even that she’d noticed she’d lost him. Antony looked over his shoulder and put his back to a thick old tree and braced himself.
The Gauls weren’t really what you’d call an army, more like a street gang taken to the woods, but their swords were damned sharp, and five of the barbarians came at him in a rush, howling at the top of their lungs. Antony kicked a broken helmet at one of them, another bit of flotsam from the dead, and as the others drew in he dropped into a crouch and stabbed his sword at their legs, keeping his own shield drawn up over his head.
Axes, of course they’d have bloody axes, he thought bitterly, as they thumped into the shield, but he managed to get one of them in the thigh, and another in the gut, and then he heaved himself up off the ground and pushed the three survivors back for a moment with a couple of wide swings, and grinned at them as he caught his breath. “Just like playing at soldiers on the Campus Martius, eh, fellows?” They just scowled at him, humorless colei, and they came on again.
He lost track of the time a little: his eyes were stinging with sweat, and his arm and his leg where they were bleeding. Then one of the men staggered and fell forward, an arrow sprouting out of his back. The other two looked around; Antony lunged forward and put his sword into the neck of one of them, and another arrow took down the last Then, another one thumped into Antony’s shield.
“Watch your blasted aim!” Antony yelled, and ducked behind the shelter of his tree as the Gauls went pounding away to either side of him, chased with arrows and dragon-roaring.
“Antony!” Vincitatus landed beside him, and batted away another couple of Gauls who were running by too closely. “There you are.”
He stood a moment panting, and then he let his sword and shield drop and collapsed against her side.
“Why did you climb down without telling me?” she said reproachfully, peering down at him. “You might have been hurt.”
He was too out of breath to do more than feebly wave his fist at her.
“I don’t care if Jupiter himself wants to see me,” Antony said. “First I’m going to eat half a cow—yes, sweetness, you shall have the other half—and then I’m going to have a bath, and then I’ll consider receiving visitors. If any of them are willing to come to me.” He smiled pleasantly, and leaned back against Vincitatus’s foreleg and patted one of her talons. The legionary looked uncertain, and backed even further away.
One thing to say for a battlefield, the slaves were cheap and a sight more cowed, and even if they were untrained and mostly useless, it didn’t take that much skill to carry and fill a bath. Antony scrubbed under deluges of cold water and then sank with relief into the deep trough they’d found somewhere. “I could sleep for a week,” he said, letting his eyes close.
“Mm,” Vincitatus said drowsily, and belched behind him, sound like a thundercloud. She’d gorged on two cavalry horses.
“You there, more wine,” Antony said, vaguely snapping his fingers into the air.
“Allow me,” a cool patrician voice said, and Antony opened his eyes and sat up when he saw the general’s cloak.
“No, no.” The man pushed him back down gently with a hand on his shoulder. “You look entirely too comfortable to be disturbed.” The general was sitting on a chair his slaves had brought him, by the side of the tub; he poured wine for both of them, and waved the slaves off. “Now, then. I admired your very dramatic entrance, but it lacked something in the way of introduction.”
Antony took the wine cup and raised it. “Marcus Antonius, at your command.”
“Mm,” the general said. He was not very well-favored: a narrow face, skinny neck, hairline in full retreat and headed for a rout. At least he had a good voice. “Grandson of the consul?”
“You have me,” Antony said.
“Caius Julius, called Caesar,” the general said, and tilted his head. Then he added, thoughtfully, “So we are cousins of a sort, on your mother’s side.”
“Oh, yes, warm family relations all around,” Antony said, raising his eyebrows, aside from how Caesar’s uncle had put that consul grandfather to death in the last round of civil war but one.
But Caesar met his dismissive look with an amused curl of his own mouth that said plainly he knew how absurd it was. “Why not?”
Antony gave a bark of laughter. “Why not, indeed,” he said. “I had a letter for you, I believe, but unfortunately I left it in Rome. They’ve shipped us out to—” he waved a hand—”be of some use to you.”
“Oh, you will be,” Caesar said softly. “Tell me, have you ever thought of putting archers on her back?”
© 2009 by Naomi Novik.
Originally published in The Dragon Book,
edited by Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois.
Reprinted by permission of the author.