Chapter 31
Leading the Lamb to the Slaughter


Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Is that not what they say? If Cornelius Tarquininus did not so enjoy all the benefits of being King, he would have abdicated the throne long ago. Of course, you cannot enjoy the privileges of rank without the accompanying responsibilities. These sessions in the Agora were particularly tiresome. Give him the circus, the arena, or the banquet hall, the baths and the brothels. That was where life was worth living. Not all this tedious talk. What even came of it? Even if there was some matter that was brought to a vote, he was never called on to vote himself unless there was a deadlock and if that happened, he would be told how to vote by his advisors. His presence was entirely unnecessary, but perhaps drawing attention to that point was not so wise. After all, if everyone realized they did not need a king, all the benefits of being king that he enjoyed would be forfeit.
So long as the wine flowed, it was tolerable, but after several incidents when he was younger, his advisors restricted how much he could drink while the Agora was in session. He had to drink slowly to make his ration last, which was fine if it was good vintage that was worth savoring. You would think that the King would always be served the finest wines in the city, but this was not always the case. Today's wine was rather mediocre at best. Beggars cannot be choosers, odd as it might be for the King to think of himself as a beggar.
The tedium was disrupted when somebody forcibly took the floor over the objections of the moderators.
"You do not have leave to enter!" one of them cried. "Guards!"
The forum guards moved to intercept the rudely dressed barbarian, but the barbarian simply stretched out his hand and the guards dropped their clubs, clutching at their faces and stumbling about as though they were blind. And with a wave of the barbarian's hand, the moderator was stricken dumb. Rather than be alarmed at this sight, Cornelius idly wondered if the barbarian sorcerer might be kind enough to strike him deaf so that he would not have to listen to the speakers in the Agora anymore.
Though the intruder was a barbarian, when he opened his mouth to speak, he spoke their language as well as even the best of their orators.
"People of the Blue City, plebeians and patricians alike, hearken to my voice. The blood of old Kyanopolis has not yet died out completely. There are those who yet remember your ancestral home in the North, before you were driven out in ages past. You men of Rome who now reign, you remember when you came to this land as strangers from afar and took this city for your own.
"I come to you this day from the North, where a new people have come from afar and put the ancient city under their heel. This is not enough for them, though. This city is known to them and they would put it under their heel as well.
"In the name of the King of Pendragon, I declare war on the Blue City. When the King's men come, and they are coming, if you surrender this city without condition, your lives at least will be spared. Do not trust in the Campus Caedis to protect you. The horrors of Hades will not stop the King, for Death rides with him. Your time is short. Make your choice."
Never in the two thousand-year history of the city had anyone spoken so brazenly in the Agora. Never had anyone from a foreign land come to the Agora to declare war. Indeed, never since the time Cornelius' ancestors conquered the city had it faced war from without. Shielded by the Campus Caedis to the north and the vast Silva Regis to the south, the mountains to the west and the sea to the east, the city seemed secure from any threat beyond its borders. And yet this hunchbacked vagabond in black and grey rags had come to herald war from the North. Predictably, his bold words spurred an uproar.
"Outrage!" several voices cried.
"Seize him!" others shouted.
Apparently they learned nothing from what the barbarian did to the guards and the moderator. Maybe they thought there was safety in numbers. Scores of men whipped into a fury swarmed at the barbarian from the stands and if he was an ordinary man, he would have likely been torn limb from limb. However, he was not an ordinary man and if he had not sufficiently demonstrated that before, he did so then by throwing his head back and letting out a horrible screech. No human could make such a sound nor any beast known to man either, expect perhaps the horrors lurking in his most terrifying nightmares. The very stones seemed to quake and it felt like the King's heart died in his chest. All those who rushed at the barbarian had fallen to their knees shaking in terror.
"Is this how civilized men treat an emissary?" the barbarian asked, having composed himself once more. "Consider yourselves fortunate that I do not hold it against you. Know that I am but the least of my master's servants. Reason among yourselves and decide. When our armies come. will you bend the knee and live or will you resist like fools, sowing folly and reaping destruction? Consider it well."
As if there was any further need to demonstrate his power, the barbarian lifted up his hands and a bolt of lighting streaked down from the heavens, striking the very spot where he stood. When the blinding flash cleared, the barbarian was gone, with a loud peal of thunder heralding his departure.
For some time, the men in the Agora remained stunned and silent. Only as their senses returned to them did they begin to speak among themselves.
"This cannot stand. Will we allow ourselves to be shamed by this infernal trickery?"
"We must avenge our honor!"
"Avenge it how? If he spoke truly, there is an entire army far worse on its way here now."
"Empty words. He dazzles with the devil's crafts to strike fear in our hearts that they might triumph without fighting. If they were so strong, they would have no need of such tricks."
"How do you know this? Will you stake your life on it? Indeed, all our lives?"
"Even if we would play the craven, there is no guarantee the barbarians will keep their word."
"We must take courage and meet the enemy!"
"Will you put on armor and take spear in hand? No, it is the Legion that will do the fighting and the dying."
"Do you suggest we do nothing?"
"No. Only do not pretend it is your courage."
"The Legion has not fought a true war since the conquest. What makes you think they can stand against an army that has quelled the North and would brave the Campus Caedis?"
"You dare impugn the strength of the Legion!?"
"We know nothing about the enemy. They could be ten thousand men strong, a hundred thousand even."
"I do not believe there is a hundred thousand men to be had in all the lands of the North."
"We do not know! The emissary spoke of men from afar like our ancestors. Consider the legends."
"They are just that, legends. The stories of Rome are but fables fit for children. Do not let that barbarian's trickery rob you of your good sense."
"Whatever the case may be, we must decide! How shall we act?"
Cornelius was not paying close attention to who said what, but then Sertorius, one of the most powerful senators, rose up address the assembly, holding up his hands to quiet all other voices.
"Very well, very well. Let us put it to a vote. Who here says we ought to play the craven and throw ourselves on the mercy of the barbarians, that we might live to wallow in disgrace?"
Surprisingly, even with the terms so worded, at least one in three voted in favor of surrender.
"Who then would have us live and die as men," Sertorius asked, "to trust in the strength of the Legion to deliver us, to remind these barbarians why the Campus Caedis is so named?"
Once again, about one in three voted, which meant nearly as many abstained as those who voted for and against surrender.
Sertorius rebuked them, saying, "There can be no fence-sitters here! Again! Who chooses surrender and dishonor?"
There were more votes than the first time, but not many. Eyeing the crowd, Sertorius said, "Let no man be silent. Who then chooses courage and honor?"
The side favoring war had a clear majority, but not enough to serve as an indisputable mandate. However, one look at his advisors told Cornelius all he needed to know.
"Summon Cassius," the King said. "I will meet him back at the palace."

* * *

No one asked Cornelius' opinion on the matter, not that he had a particularly strong or well-informed opinion on the prospect of sending the Legion beyond the Wall, or much of anything else to be honest. As King, though, he was the nominal supreme commander of the army and so it fell to him to give the order personally.
It was not long before Cassius entered the throne room, striding briskly to the throne, and then saluting Cornelius, saying, "Hail the King."
Cassius was the the acting legate of the Legion. Formally, the post of legate had to be held by a senator, but no senator would personally lead troops into battle and so Cassius was appointed to act in the legate's stead. He was a man tough as boiled leather, a champion gladiator before he was granted his freedom and adopted into House Cassius. He could not claim the family title for himself, but his son by marriage to the late patriarch's daughter was eligible to inherit the full honor of the family should none of his cousins survive to adulthood and produce heirs to continue the bloodline. Those cousins might live longer if they renounced their claim to the inheritance.
"Cassius," the King began, "earlier today an emissary from the North made an appearance at the Agora... to declare war on this city, and to announce that the Northern army is on its way."
"Should you not be telling this to Maxentius?" Cassius asked, referring to the fleet prefect of the navy. "We have not seen any northern raiders for years, but surely our fleet can sink their ships before they can even reach the harbor since they have been gracious enough to forewarn us of their coming."
"They are not coming by sea, Cassius," the King replied.
"It will take them weeks to cross the overland route around the Campus Caedis."
"They do not mean to go around either."
"They would cross the Campus Caedis?" Cassius asked incredulously. "Then there is even less to fear. They will never make it."
"The emissary seemed to think differently and the Senate has voted for the Legion to march out to meet them before they can reach the Wall."
Cassius balked at this.
"The Senate would have me march the Legion into the Campus Caedis? It is madness."
"It is the will of the Senate," Cornelius said.
"It would be a fruitless waste of life. I will double the guard on the Wall, triple it even, and have the rest of the Legion at the ready the moment there is sight of the enemy, should any of them survive the crossing, but I will not take my men into those cursed lands."
Cassius had never spoken so brazenly before. Clearly he had forgotten his place.
"You would defy the will of the Senate? Refuse an order from your King? I wold have your head for this and the heads of everyone in your family. Guards!"
Cassius was unshaken and Cornelius' intended display of authority worked against him because the Praetorians in the throne room turned not to Cassius but to him.
"Do not make the same error as your father, O King," Cassius said coolly. "The kings may style themselves as gods for festivals and pageants, but they are all too mortal, as are the men of the Senate. Those without the stomach to take up arms should tread lightly among those who do."
Realizing how near he was to sharing his father's fate, Cornelius started to panic, crying out, "This, this is treason! Treason!"
"No," Cassius replied, raising a hand so that the Praetorians stood down. "This is not treason. In fact, I will make a wager with you. For the sake of my family, I will obey the Senate. If I am proven wrong, my head will be yours. I offer it up willingly. However, if I am right and this mad course leads to the Legion's devastation because we foolishly dared to invoke the curse upon us, should I survive to return here, it is your head that will be made an offering to appease the gods. I will claim it myself."
"You... you cannot do this," Cornelius said with quaking voice. "I am only carrying out the Senate's will."
"And you will be made to answer for it, O King," Cassius replied. "That is the true purpose of kings. They are fattened calves to be sacrificed to satisfy the gods' wrath against the people. Pray for our victory. Not only the fate of the city, but your own life hangs in the balance."
With that, Cassius saluted once more, then turned and left. Cornelius looked nervously to the Praetorians, who went back to being still as statues. Each and every one of them was sworn to protect his life, but they were just as ready to take it and Cassius had their loyalty. Did he mean to snuff out this dynasty that had ruled for over a thousand years? He longed for the morning, when his greatest care was boredom. Heavy is the head that wears the crown indeed.