Today, reports and audiences disposed of, the Emperor had withdrawn to the palace garden to spend an hour in conversation with a few of his intimates, while his musicians, concealed within a vine-covered bower, entertained him. While he was thus occupied a chamberlain approached and announced that the patrician Fulvus Fupus begged an audience of the Emperor.
“Fulvus knows that the audience hour is past,” snapped the Emperor. “Bid him come on the morrow.”
“He insists, most glorious” said the chamberlain, “that his business is of the utmost importance and that it is only because he felt that the safety of the Emperor is at stake that he came at this hour.”
“Bring him here then,” commanded Validus, and, as the chamberlain turned away, “Am I never to have a moment’s relaxation without some fool like Fulvus Fupus breaking in upon me with some silly story?” he grumbled to one of his companions.
When Fulvus approached the Emperor a moment later, he was received with a cold and haughty stare.
“I have come, most glorious Ceasar,” said Fulvus, “to fulfill the duty of a citizen of Rome, whose first concern should be the safety of his Emperor.”
“What are you talking about?” snapped Validus. “Quick, out with it!”
“There is a stranger in Castrum Mare who claims to be a barbarian from Germania, but I believe him to be a spy from Castrum Sanguinarius where, it is said, Cassius Hasta is an honored guest of Sublatus, in that city.”
“What do you know about Cassius Hasta and what has he to do with it?” demanded Validus.
“It is said—it is rumored,” stammered Fulvus Fupus, “that—”
“I have heard too many rumors already about Cassius Hasta,” exclaimed Validus. “Can I not dispatch my nephew upon a mission without every fool in Castrum Mare lying awake nights to conjure motives, which may later be ascribed to me?”
“It is only what I heard,” said Fulvus, flushed and uncomfortable. “I do not know anything about it. I did not say that I knew.”
“Well, what did you hear?” demanded Validus. “Come, out with it.”
“The talk is common in the Baths that you sent Cassius Hasta away because he was plotting treason and that he went at once to Sublatus, who received him in a friendly fashion and that together they are planning an attack upon Castrum Mare.”
Validus scowled. “Baseless rumor,” he said; “but what about this prisoner? What has he to do with it and why have I not been advised of his presence?” “That I do not know,” said Fulvus Fupus. “That is why I felt it doubly my duty to inform you, since the man who is harboring the stranger is a most powerful patrician and one who might well be ambitious.”
“Who is he?” asked the Emperor.
“Septimus Favonius,” replied Fupus.
“Septimus Favonius!” exclaimed Validus. “Impossible.”
“Not so impossible,” said Fupus, boldly, “if glorious Caesar will but recall the friendship that ever existed between Cassius Hasta and Mallius Lepus, the nephew of Septimus Favonius. The home of Septimus Favonius was the other home of Cassius Hasta. To whom, then, sooner might he turn for aid than to this powerful friend whose ambitions are well known outside the palace, even though they may not as yet have come to the ears of Validus Augustus?”
Nervously the Emperor arose and paced to and fro, the eyes of the others watching him narrowly; those of Fulvus Fupus narrowed with malign anticipation.
Presently Validus halted and turned toward one of his courtiers. “May Hercules strike me dead,” he cried, “if there be not some truth in what Fulvus Fupus suggests!” and to Fupus, “What is this stranger like?”
“He is a man of white skin, yet of slightly different complexion and appearance than the usual patrician. He feigns to speak our language with a certain practiced stiltedness that is intended to suggest lack of familiarity. This, I think, is merely a part of the ruse to deceive “
“How did he come into Castrum Mare and none of my officers report the matter to me?” asked Validus.
“That you may learn from Mallius Lepus,” said Fulvus Fupus, “for Mallius Lepus was in command of the Porta Decumana when some of the barbarians of the lake villages brought him there, presumably a prisoner, yet Caesar knows how easy it would have been to bribe these creatures to play such a part.”
“You explain it so well, Fulvus Fupus,” said the Emperor, “that one might even suspect you to have been the instigator of the plot, or at least to have given much thought to similar schemes.”
“Caesar’s ever brilliant wit never deserts him,” said Fupus, forcing a smile, though his face paled.
“We shall see,” snapped Validus, and turning to one of his officers, “Order the arrest of Septimus, and Mallius Lepus and this stranger at once.”
As he ceased speaking a chamberlain entered the garden and approached the Emperor. “Septimus Favonius request an audience,” he announced. “Mallius Lepus, his nephew, and a stranger are with him.”
“Fetch them,” said Validus and to the officer who was about to depart to arrest them, “Wait here. We shall see what Septimus Favonius has to say.”
A moment later the three entered and approached the Emperor. Favonius and Lepus saluted Validus and then the former presented von Harben as a barbarian chief from Germania.
“We have already heard of this barbarian chief,” said Validus, with a sneer. Favonius and Lepus glanced at Fupus. “Why was I not immediately notified of the capture of this prisoner?” This time the Emperor directed his remarks to Mallius Lepus.
“There has been little delay, Caesar,” replied the young officer. “It was necessary that he be bathed and properly clothed before he was brought here.”
“It was not necessary that he be brought here,” said Validus. “There are dungeons in Castrum Mare for prisoners from Castra Sanguinarius.”
“He is not from Castra Sanguinarius,” said Septimus Favonius.
“Where are you from and what are you doing in my country?” demanded Validus, turning upon von Harben.
“I am from a country that your historians knew as Germania,” replied Erich.
“And I suppose you learned to speak our language in Germania,” sneered Validus.
“Yes,” replied von Harben, “I did.”
“And you have never been to Castra Sanguinarius?”
“I presume you have been to Rome,” laughed Validus.
“Yes, many times,” replied von Harben.
“And who is Emperor there now?”
“There is no Roman Emperor,” said von Harben.
“No Roman Emperor!” exclaimed Validus. “If you are not a spy from Castra Sanguinarius, you are a lunatic. Perhaps you are both, for no one but a lunatic would expect me to believe such a story. No Roman Emperor, indeed!”
“There is no Roman Emperor,” said von Harben, “because there is no Roman Empire. Mallius Lepus tells me that your country has had no intercourse with the outside world for more than eighteen hundred years. Much can happen in that time—much has happened. Rome fell, over a thousand years ago. No nation speaks its language today, which is understood by priests and scholars only. The barbarians of Germania, of Gallia, and of Britannia have built empires and civilizations of tremendous power, and Rome is only a city in Italia.”
Mallius Lepus was beaming delightedly. “I told you,” he whispered to Favonius, “that you would love him. By Jupiter, I wish he would tell Validus the story of the litters that travel fifty thousand paces an hour!”
There was that in the tone and manner of von Harben that compelled confidence and belief, so that even the suspicious Validus gave credence to the seemingly wild tales of the stranger and presently found himself asking questions of the barbarian.
Finally the Emperor turned to Fulvus Fupus. “Upon what proof did you accuse this man of being a Spy from Castra Sanguinarius?” he demanded.
“Where else may he be from?” asked Fulvus Fupus. “We know he is not from Castrum Mare, so he must be from Castra Sanguinarius.”
“You have no evidence then to substantiate your accusations?”
“Get out,” ordered Validus, angrily. “I shall attend to you later.”
Overcome by mortification, Fupus left the garden, but the malevolent glances that he shot at Favonius, Lepus, and Erich boded them no good. Validus looked long and searchingly at von Harben for several minutes after Fupus quit the garden as though attempting to read the soul of the stranger standing before him.
“So there is no Emperor at Rome,” he mused, half aloud. “When Sanguinarius led his cohort out of Ægyptus, Nerva was Emperor. That was upon the sixth day before the calends of February in the 848th year of the city in the second year of Nerva’s reign. Since that day no word of Rome has reached the descendants of Sanguinarius and his cohort.”
Von Harben figured rapidly, searching his memory for the historical dates and data of ancient history that were as fresh in his mind as those of his own day. “The sixth day before the calends of February,” he repeated; “that would be the twenty-seventh day of January in the 848th year of the city—why, January twenty-seventh, A.D. 98, is the date of Nerva’s death,” he said.
“Ah, if Sanguinarius had but known,” said Validus, “but Ægyptus is a long way from Rome and Sanguinarius was far to the south up the Nilus before word could have reached his post by ancient Thebae that his enemy was dead. And who became Emperor after Nerva? Do you know that?”
“Trajan,” replied von Harben.
“Why do you, a barbarian, know so much concerning the history of Rome?” asked the Emperor.
“I am a student of such things,” replied von Harben. “it has been my ambition to become an authority on the subject.”
“Could you write down these happenings since the death of Nerva?”
“I could put down all that I could recall, or all that I have read,” said von Harben, “but it would take a long time.”
“You shall do it,” said Validus, “and you shall have the time.”
“But I had not planned remaining on in your country,” dissented von Harben.
“You shall remain,” said Validus. “You shall also write a history of the reign of Validus Augustus, Emperor of the East.”
“But—” interjected von Harben.
“Enough!” snapped Validus. “I am Caesar. It is a command.”
Von Harben shrugged and smiled. Rome and the Caesars, he realized, had never seemed other than musty parchment and weather-worn inscriptions cut in crumbling stone, until now.
Here, indeed, was a real Caesar. What matter it that his empire was naught but a few square miles of marsh, an island and swampy shore-land in the bottom of an unknown canyon, or that his subjects numbered less than fifty thousand souls—the first Augustus himself was no more a Caesar than was his namesake, Validus.
“Come,” said Validus, “I shall take you to the library myself, for that will be the scene of your labors.”
In the library, which was a vault-like room at the end of a long corridor, Validus displayed with pride several hundred parchment rolls neatly arranged upon shelves.
“Here,” said Validus, selecting one of the rolls, “is the story of Sanguinarius and the history of our country up to the founding of Castrum Mare. Take it with you and read it at your leisure, for while you shall remain with Septimus Favonius, whom with Mallius Lepus I shall hold responsible for you, every day you shall come to the palace and I shall dictate to you the history of my reign. Go, now, with Septimus Favonius and at this hour tomorrow attend again upon Caesar.”
When they were outside the palace of Validus Augustus, von Harben turned to Mallius Lepus. “It is a question whether I am prisoner or guest,” he said, with a rueful smile.
“Perhaps you are both,” said Mallius Lepus, “but that you are even partially a guest is fortunate for you. Validus Augustus is vain, arrogant, and cruel. He is also suspicious, for he knows that he is not popular, and Fulvus Fupus had evidently almost succeeded in bringing your doom upon you and ruin to Favonius and myself before we arrived. What strange whim altered the mind of Caesar I do not know, but it is fortunate for you that it was altered; fortunate, too, for Septimus Favonius and Mallius Lepus.”
“But it will take years to write the history of Rome,” said von Harben.
“And if you refuse to write it you will be dead many more years than it would take to accomplish the task,” retorted Mallius Lepus, with a grin.
“Castrum Mare is not an unpleasant place in which to live,” said Septimus Favonius.
“Perhaps you are right,” said von Harben, as the face of the daughter of Favonius presented itself to his mind.
Returned to the home of the host, the instinct of the archaeologist and the scholar urged von Harben to an early perusal of the ancient papyrus roll that Caesar had loaned him, so that no sooner was he in the apartments that had been set aside for him than he stretched himself upon a long sofa and untied the cords that confined the roll.
As it unrolled before his eyes he saw a manuscript in ancient Latin, marred by changes and erasures, yellowed by age. It was quite unlike anything that had previously fallen into his hands during his scholarly investigations into the history and literature of ancient Rome. For whereas such other original ancient manuscripts as he had had the good fortune to examine had been the work of clerks or scholars, a moment’s glance at this marked it as the laborious effort of a soldier unskilled in literary pursuits.
The manuscript bristled with the rough idiom of far-flung camps of veteran legionaries, with the slang of Rome and Egypt of nearly two thousand years before, and there were references to people and places that appeared in no histories or geographies known to modern man—little places and little people that were without fame in their own time and whose very memory had long since been erased from the consciousness of man, but yet in this crude manuscript they lived again for Erich von Harben—the quaestor who had saved the life of Sanguinarius in an Egyptian town that never was on any map, and there was Marcus Crispus Sanguinarius himself who had been of sufficient importance to win the enmity of Nerva in the year 90 A.D. while the latter was consul—Marcus Crispus Sanguinarius, the founder of an empire, whose name appears nowhere in the annals of ancient Rome.
With mounting interest von Harben read the complaints of Sanguinarius and his anger because the enmity of Nerva had caused him to be relegated to the hot sands of this distant post below the ancient city of Thebae in far Ægyptus.
Writing in the third person, Sanguinarius had said:
”Sanguinarius, a prefect of the Third Cohort of the Tenth Legion, stationed below Thebae in Ægyptus in the 846th year of the city, immediately after Nerva assumed the purple, was accused of having plotted against the Emperor.
”About the fifth day before the calends of February in the 848th year of the city a messenger came to Sanguinarius from Nerva commanding the præfect to return to Rome and place himself under arrest, but this Sanguinarius had no mind to do, and as no other in his camp knew the nature of the message he had received from Nerva, Sanguinarius struck the messenger down with his dagger and caused the word to be spread among his men that the man had been an assassin sent from Rome and that Sanguinarius had slain him in self-defense.
”He also told his lieutenants and centurions that Nerva was sending a large force to destroy the cohort and he prevailed upon them to follow up the Nilus in search of a new country where they might establish themselves far from the malignant power of a jealous Caesar, and upon the following day the long march commenced.
”It so happened that shortly before this a fleet of one hundred and twenty vessels landed at Myos-Hormos, a port of Ægyptus on the Sinus Arabius. This merchant fleet annually brought rich merchandise from the island of Taprobana—silk, the value of which was equal to its weight in gold, pearls, diamonds, and a variety of aromatics and other merchandise, which was transferred to the backs of camels and brought inland from Myos-Hormos to the Nilus and down that river to Alexandria, whence it was shipped to Rome.
”With this caravan were hundreds of slaves from India and far Cathay and even light-skinned people captured in the distant northwest by Mongol raiders. The majority of these were young girls destined for the auction block at Rome. And it so chanced that Sanguinarius met this caravan, heavy with riches and women, and captured it. During the ensuing five years the cohort settled several times in what they hoped would prove a permanent camp, but it was not until the 853rd year of Rome that, by accident, they discovered the hidden canyon where now stands Castra Sanguinarius.”
”You find it interesting?” inquired a voice from the door-way, and looking up von Harben saw Mallius Lepus standing on the threshold.
“Very,” said Erich.
Lepus shrugged his shoulder. “We suspect that it would have been more interesting had the old assassin written the truth,” said Lepus. “As a matter of fact, very little is known concerning his reign, which lasted for twenty years. He was assassinated in the year 20 Anno Sanguinarii, which corresponds to the 873rd year of Rome. The old buck named the city after himself, decreed a calendar of his own, and had his head stamped on gold coins, many of which are still in existence. Even today we use his calendar quite as much as that of our Roman ancestors, but in Castrum Mare we have tried to forget the example of Sanguinarius as much as possible.”
“What is this other city that I have heard mentioned so often and that is called Castra Sanguinarius?” asked von Harben.
“It is the original city founded by Sanguinarius,” replied Lepus. “For a hundred years after the founding of the city conditions grew more and more intolerable until no man’s life or property was safe, unless he was willing to reduce himself almost to the status of a slave and continually fawn upon the Emperor. It was then that Honus Hasta revolted and led a few hundred families to this island at the eastern end of the valley, founding the city and the empire of Castrum Mare. Here, for over seventeen hundred year, the descendants of these families have lived in comparative peace and security, but in an almost constant state of war with Castra Sanguinarius.
“From mutual necessity the two cities carry on a commerce that is often interrupted by raids and wars. The suspicion and hatred that the inhabitants of each city feel for the inhabitants of the other is fostered always by our Emperors, each of whom fears that friendly communication between the two cities would result in the overthrow of one of them.”
“And now Castrum Mare is happy and contented under Caesar?” asked Erich.
“That is a question that it might not be safe to answer honestly,” said Lepus, with a shrug.
“If I am going to the palace every day to write the history of Rome for Validus Augustus and receive from him the story of his reign,” said von Harben, “it might be well if I knew something of the man, other-wise there is a chance for me to get into serious trouble, which might conceivably react upon you and Septimus Favonius, whom Caesar has made responsible for me. If you care to forewarn me, I promise you that I shall repeat nothing that you may tell me.”
Lepus, leaning lightly against the wall by the doorway, played idly with the hilt of his dagger as he took thought before replying. Presently he looked up, straight into von Harben’s eyes.
“I shall trust you,” he said; “first, because there is that in you which inspires confidence, and, second, because it cannot profit you to harm either Septimus Favonius or myself. Castrum Mare is not happy with its Caesar. He is arrogant and cruel—not like the Caesars to which Castrum Mare has been accustomed.
“The last Emperor was a kindly man, but at the time of his death his brother, Validus Augustus, was chosen to succeed him because Caesar’s son was, at that time, but a year old.
“This son of the former Emperor, a nephew of Validus Augustus, is called Cassius Hasta. And because of his popularity he has aroused the jealousy and hatred of Augustus, who recently sent him away upon a dangerous mission to the west end of the valley. There are many who consider it virtual banishment, but Validus Augustus insists that this is not the fact. No one knows what Cassius Hasta’s orders were. He went secretly by night and was accompanied by only a few slaves.
“It is believed that he has been ordered to enter Castra Sanguinarius as a spy, and if such is the case his mission amounts practically to a sentence of death. If this were known for a fact, the people would rise against Validus Augustus, for Cassius Hasta was the most popular man in Castrum Mare.
“But enough. I shall not bore you with the sorrows of Castrum Mare. Take your reading down into the garden where in the shade of the trees, it is cooler than here and I shall join you presently.”
As von Harben lay stretched upon the sward beneath the shade of a tree in the cool garden of Septimus Favonius, his mind was not upon the history of Sanguinarius, nor upon the political woes of Castrum Mare so much as they were upon plans for escape.
As a scholar, an explorer, and an archaeologist he would delight in remaining here for such a time as might be necessary for him to make an exploration of the valley and study the government and customs of its inhabitants, but to remain cooped up in the vault-like library of the Emperor of the East writing the history of ancient Rome in Latin with a reed pen on papyrus rolls in no way appealed to him.
The rustle of fresh linen and the soft fall of sandaled feet upon the graveled garden walk interrupted his trend of thought and as he looked up into the face of Favonia, daughter of Septimus Favonius, the history of ancient Rome together with half-formulated plans for escape were dissipated from his mind by the girl’s sweet smile, as is a morning mist by the rising sun.