Are our wants worth what we must give? If not, can we do nothing?
Cato Duilius Claudius
Pethens, summer, Year 335
The bleaching sun slanted through a dormer on the side of a trussed ceiling.
Specks of dust spiraled in chutes of light, shrouding the chessboard before disappearing into columns of shadows. Since his twelfth name day, Cato had played chess with Father, Consul Gnaeus Januarius Claudius, three times a week in the turret at high noon when the sun scorched in deadly earnest. To Father’s belief, many times in life he would be in extreme physical discomfort, and he would nonetheless be able to think.
Clear the way for the prophet, then go for the Queen, thought Cato, sneaking a glance up at Father, whose face betrayed nothing. He looked down, chewing his bottom lip. Beads of sweat rolled off his brow bones and tasted like the sea. He fidgeted, yearning for a drink, sweet juice of melons or figs. Suspicion gnawed in the back of his head, calling for caution, while his patience stretched thin.
He took out Father’s pawn with his Centurion, then, his Prophet, hurrying for the checkmate.
“Check,” said Father, pointing his Rook at Cato’s King.
“You know what’s your problem?”
“That am I your son?” Cato sulked, puckering up his face. “Can’t you just let me win once?”
Father ruffled his hair. “You’re too hell-bent on winning, you forget the bigger picture. In warfare, we all wish to wrest advantages from the enemy. But we must not fixate on that alone. Remember, your enemy is also aware of his own advantages and wishes to use them to do you harm. Enter this as a factor in your calculation, and you’ll have a bigger picture.” He glided a finger across the cheeseboard. “My Queen was in an advantageous position, posing a direct threat to your King. But instead of going right after the threat, you should have set your pieces to contain it, or else you’d walk straight into my trap as you did. All warfare is based on deception, Cato, like the theater.”
“But how am I supposed to set the pieces?” Cato retorted. “How do I know which piece will come in handy?”
“You don’t.” The Lord Consul smiled; the sun bobbled the outline of his face. “That’s why you need to treat everyone well. And when you see a man you can help, anyone, plebs or patricians, help them as if they were your own brothers. You’ll never know when their debts to you will come in handy.”
Cato narrowed his eyes, his lips pursing. He liked learning beyond chess every time he played with his old man.
The door to the chamber went ajar. Caligae clacked the stone floor as Augustus Cassius Gaius strutted inside with his long sword cinched to his belt. He bowed; his mail rustled. “Invasion lines spotted in the east, Consul,” he croaked.
Cato blinked, looking between the sturdy warrior and Father, who had gotten to his feet.
“Go to your mother,” he said, his smile gone.
Pethens, end of summer, Year 335
Cato waited with his mother, Lady Laurentina Marcella Liviana, in her humbly appointed bedchamber.
They were going to escape through the tunnel behind the Castle Father used for freight while the city was under siege. But when they heard the loud clacks of caligae rising from the other end of the arched corridor, his lady mother pushed a pedestal to the wall that opened a semi-circle in the floor.
“Go!” Panic-stricken, Mother grabbed his wrist. “No one else knows about this way out except your father.”
“What’s going on, Mother?” Cato asked. Terror enveloped him for the first time in the twelve short years of his life. “Aren’t we escaping with Uncle Augustus?”
“Cato, look at me.” Holding his cheeks in both hands, Mother smothered him with kisses. Her tears damped his face. “This tunnel will lead you to the woods south of the Tigris Canal. If I’m wrong, I’ll meet you there at sundown. If not, run!”
She shoved him down the hole.
Before Cato could have voiced another word of protest, the pedestal had been returned to its former position, and the last daylight went out.
Hanging on to the iron rungs jutting out of the concrete walls, he heard nothing but his heart racing fast, his four limbs shaking. A clamor of footsteps broke in from above, steel singing out of sheaths, and a man’s gruff voice summoned Mother by her name, both familiar and distant, like a lost memory never should have been forgotten.
Augustus Cassius Gaius.
Straining his ear, Cato tried to make out more words from the muffled voices, the clinging of chains, a rapid staccato of feet, and a harsh scrape against the unforgiving floor, then followed a dead silence.
Cato gulped, rearing his head as he scaled up a rung. His eyes widened, his heart in his throat. A creaking so small above him would have gone unnoticed had he not been wary. He dropped his gaze.
Steady. He told himself. Steady and think.
Rung by rung, he climbed down without making a sound, his palms cold and sweaty, fat tears hot on his cheeks.
Inside the tunnel dark and endless, Cato scrambled ahead for what felt as if a lifetime before hitting a wall. He groped for the leveler that opened the shaft above. His fingers splayed, raking at a leaf mold. His head reeled as did his feet. Inside the hollow in the trunk of an oak, he hid, huddling himself.
A mist rose before his eyes, damping his tunic.
He had abandoned Mother to her fate! He had run away like a coward! Because he had no choice! Because he was weak! He threw his fist at the hard soil. Screaming in silence, he sobbed until the sun wheeled into stars. Until he had cried out of tears. Until he could no longer hold himself straight. He passed out.
Despite his groggy head the next morning, he knew what he must do. Having discarded everything that would give away his identity, he traded the rest with villagers near the Praetor’s Port for his fare south to Volos. He mudded and ripped his tunic in disguise while risking another day as he lingered on the outskirts of Pethens. Foolish perchance, he needed the confirmation.
That Marcus Cornelius Uranus had secured the city, and Augustus Cassius Gaius, the man Cato used to call uncle, had bludgeoned out Father’s brain with a mace. As for his poor lady mother, jeered by the onlookers, she was put to Gods’ Gaze next to the corpse of her husband.
Stifling his shudders, Cato bit his bottom lip till it bled. A metallic tang stung his palate, a taste he knew he would carry for life with him. Tears that had been hot on his cheeks froze in his eyes as he watched the throngs both baleful and manic celebrating Father’s downfall from afield.
He fled the city that night, vowing that one day, he would have his vengeance.
Volos, spring, Year 341
At the betting booth outside the Arena of Pyrrhic Battles, men strained their necks and hollered, pumping their fists in the air.
“Oi, kettle boy! What’s the over-score for Giant Ballista?”
The kettle boy vaulted onto a bar. Crouching next to the man’s ear, he yelled, “-7, -7, -9, -11, -10, -8, -11, tallying a minus fifty-two. And your last wager was fifty dennies. Do you wish to raise, sir?”
“Yes! I raise another twenty!”
“Thank you, good sir!” He winked, swiping his ash-blond hair to the back of his head as he jumped back behind the bar.
It usually took the hustle of five to ten note-takers at one betting booth during a game. But the kettle boy, being able to remember all the numbers and names without having even to take notes, ran one booth by himself.
At the end of each rowdy day, he would make three dennies, twice the amount of other note-takers, and spend one on wine.
On one caliginous night, he zigzagged the street, gulping his wine, waiting for it to fully kick in and drown out all the meaningless numbers that buzzed in his head. He saw a boy about his age thrown out in the street.
“You’re the son of a traitor! I’ll report you if I see your bloody face again!” Bellowed a man from inside, followed by a slam.
The kettle boy bounded up to the shadow huddling against the heel of a wall and helped him up.
“Thanks,” the other boy slurred.
“Is it true?”
“That you’re the son of a traitor?”
“No, that’s a lie!” the boy flipped, glowering. “My father was only a fletcher! A craftsman, making bows and arrows for the Imperial Guards! He never got to decide what those arrows were for! They executed him anyway!” A sob broke his voice.
“Alright, alright!” he hushed him, patting him on the threadbare shoulder. “Easy there! You got a name?”
“Anthony. Anthony Heius.”
“Here, Anthony Heius.” The kettle boy loosened the pouch from his belt and tossed it at him. “There are altogether twelve dennies. That’s all I’ve got. You should be able to find yourself a new place. Traitor or not, no insulae would turn away a tenant with full payment. But you can’t be talking about yourself again. Understand?”
Anthony compressed his thin lips to a slit. Above his sunken cheeks, downturned eyes roamed the other boy. “What about yourself?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Is that a lie?”
The kettle boy waggled a wrist. “I work at the betting booth. They’d only allow me to work to my death, not starve.”
“Speaking of the betting booth,” the kettle boy went forth. “Anthony, would you like to make some real dennies with me?”
“You want me to work at the booth? I’m not good with numbers.”
“No, I mean gamble.” The kettle boy regarded him with a lopsided grin. “Leave the numbers to me. I’ll tell you who to bet on and how much.” He quaffed more wine and belched, his head inclining askew. “I made an oath to the Scipios when I started working at the booth, and by the oath, I’m not allowed to make my own bets. But you,” he paused, looking archly at Anthony. “You can.”
“So what?” Anthony scowled, incredulous. “It guarantees nothing.”
“You’ll use my dennies for the first try,” the kettle boy coaxed, drawing a knee up to his chest. “And if my bet is correct and wins, we’ll share fifty-fifty. Then, you can decide how much you want to chip in next time. How’s that for a guarantee?” Wine gurgled. “You know,” he went forth, wiping off dribbles with the back of a wrist. “They also keep a crossbow at the betting booth for security. I can teach you how to use it at nightfall.”
“What’s your name?”
For seven years, he had not been asked for his name. They called him the kettle boy at the betting booth, and the kettle boy he had been. Reclining against the wall, he upturned the bottle at his throat. Wind chiseled out a few patches of clouds, revealing the indigo sky, where a soporific glow emanated from the hard-edged moon.
All warfare is based on deception, Cato, like the theater.
He heard the words when the noise from everything else he couldn’t forget started to ebb.
“Moon,” he crooned, a bitter aftertaste lingering on his tongue. “Moon Xeator.”