The forms of decency we must debate,
And virtue’s rules by our cold morals state;
We gain one blessing from our hated kin,
Since our eternal freedom hides the sin
—Ovid, The Metamophoses
A month has passed, largely filled with anxious waiting and speculation. No word has yet come from Mio in Thebes, no firm plan has been made for how to roust Corbullo, no chance has yet presented itself for Felix to set the hook for Pestilens. Everyone is unsettled and edgy, with the exception of Nocturna who seems almost giddy, almostthe patrician party girl she once was before embrace.
This is underscored one night at the Amphora, when Nocturna arrives on the arm of Nadzhir, both of them dressed in opulent finery and trading sidelong glances and smiles. The Persian lets the group know that he has had a wonderful time in Rome (another sidelong glance and half-smile), but sadly must soon return to his emperor’s court. He notes that this war has been a boon for those who serve Mars in his land—the makers of swords, of arrows, of those clever Greek fire incendiary jars—but much less kind to those like him who prefer to throw in their lot with Venus.
He says he has one or two more bits of business to wrap up, and then he’ll be off, but hopes to return, adding that his emperor is keen to quash the upstart Christian Constantius and knock this new god back to the volcano whence he came. He refers to the emperors new concubine, one of the Propinquii although the emperor seems to be unaware of this, so besotted is he, or perhaps bewitched. The concubine, Drasaya, has asked for news of Rome, particularly fashion and gossip, and seems very keen to visit the Eternal City. Who knows that the next trip might bring!
After he leaves, with a last lingering glance for Nocturna, a messenger arrives from the port for Violia, bringing a cryptic message from Mio. It states that she is returning with Marcus, and that while all is not well nor is all lost. That’s the message in its entirety, as might be expected from a Mek’het, but assumedly she sent message by a courier ship and is following close behind on a passenger vessel.
Gaius seems to have shed his characteristic gravitas to some degree, seemingly so delighted about something that he can barely maintain his usual expressionless parade face. His companions query him, but to no avail.
• • •
Violia is awakened abruptly, confused and groggy. It is daytime and she hears the crackling of flames, smells smoke and roasting flesh. Cedric and Alaric are hurrying her, almost dragging her along through the tunnels that lead from the restaurant to the Camera Obscura. They are not sure exactly what happened—it was so sudden, clay jars were flung through multiple windows and the building just exploded in fire. The staff rescued as many of the slaves as they could, but the business is likely a complete loss. Violia, always the businesswoman, makes a mental note to be sure the Crossroads Club was paid up in full, although she’s sure it was, that’s not the kind of thing you let slip. The Vigiles are doing their best above, but all they can really do is keep the fire from spreading and becoming a massive inferno.
She forces herself to stay awake long enough to determine that all of her ghouls are safe, and that the Obscura was not also targeted, then sinks back into slumber vowing to begin investigating as soon as she arises that night.
• • •
When Gaius awakes at nightfall and goes to check his messages, he finds one of Julia Sabina’s trusted slaves waiting for him patiently, with a summons to meet with his mentor and Tertia Julia Comitor in Comitor’s receiving chamber. There, they quiz him about his intentions as regards Corbullo, and this challenge. He lays out his clever plan and, as they probe further, reveals that he has done his best to rig the stakes so that any outcome is a victory for Rome and the Camarilla . . . and some outcomes perhaps a bit more pleasant for one Gaius Marius Calidus.
The two Propinquii, the Prince of the City and her seneschal in all but name, are amused by his having managed to package such a delightfully tricky proposition into a genuine advocacy for Rome. Comitor looks at him with new appreciation, and perhaps at Sabina as well, for being able to look at a barely patrician soldier, the descendent of a hayseed Italian with no Greek, and see this potential in him.
Sabina asks him one favor, which is that if he ends up serving Corbullo as a result of losing the popular debate, that he allow her stewardship of the Aves and their library until such time as his servitude ends. He sees that while on one hand she covets the books and the knowledge therein, her motives are honest—she wants to preserve the knowledge from Corbullo’s greasy grasp.
He assures her that he will not allow Corbullo to learn of the Aves, while sidestepping the question of whether he can or will cede his place to her as regent. How he’d present that idea to Gaudens is only the first of his concerns.
Comitor asks if he can be ready to make his challenge in two nights, and he agrees. He asks that he have the support of the Legion in the audience, and she says not to worry, there will be so much advance gossip and speculation that everyone who is anyone will be there.
The dominae dismiss him graciously, and turn back to their watered wine and talk of politics, and gossip, and the terrible fire of the night before.
• • •
Two nights hence, the battle is joined before the Senex. Comitor, who despite her continuing and unseemly distraction with her slave Agata still has her finger on what would be the pulse of the Necropolis if only it had one, was correct in her prediction that the hall would be packed with Kindred of note from every walk of unlife.
The Legio are there in force as are representatives of the other covenants. Even the Lance has an interest in the proceedings, as both Corbullo and Gaius have proven themselves enemies of the followers of Longinus and whichever proves victorious it will be useful to observe and strategize in reaction.
Gaius lays out his rather dramatic plan for patronage or servitude, and Corbullo, roused to competitiveness and out of his decades-long langour by this challenge offers a surprise of his own. He wagers his own unlife, raising the stakes dramatically and riveting the crowd’s attention to an ever greater degree. This, in turn, invigorates him even further, if one can use that term for one of the Propinquii. Tiberius agitates on Corbullo’s behalf, and Violia on Gaius’s, each to some effect but probably not enough to sway the final outcome.
Gaius makes strong use of clever wordplay, playing to the audience while reminding them that Corbullo, despite his past glories, has done little for the Camarilla lo these many decades. He also subtly insults Corbullo’s class and his status as an adoptive member of the Julii with a freedman’s unbeating heart. Worse yet, a freedman turned shopkeeper. Corbullo, in turn, reminds the assembled masses of the barely patrician status of the Marii, and of the first Gaius Marius’s main achievement, opening the Army to the rabble, as evidenced by his opponent’s preference for a peasant’s weapon.
Here he miscalculates, attempting to play to the finer sentiments of the aristocracy while, in fact, the de facto leader of the Legio, Bassianus, is resolutely of the capite censi, and respected by all. With a few more deft oratorical maneuvers, Gaius pushes the crowd in his favor, and Corbullo succumbs to a most unseemly frenzy leading, after a brief but shocking struggle, to his final death at Gaius’s hand. Gaius in the heat of victory and riding his Beast is tempted to diablerize the body, but manages to control his baser instincts. Somewhere nearby, in the shadows, a black cat’s glowing yellow eyes flash in disappointment.
In the aftermath, Comitor autocratically calms the crowd, and announces that, anticipating his possible destruction (perhaps even wishing it, less recovered from his terrible condition that he appeared), Corbullo had left his final will and testament in her care. Breaking the double seal—his and hers—she unscrolls it, and reads his behests. To his childe Julia Sabina, he leaves his library and his subterrean villa in the country. To his childe Tiberius, the rest of his estate an holdings. The assembled Propinquii erupt in chatter while Tiberius stands apart, uncharacteristically without his usual air of swaggering confidence.