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II

1.

It was the time of transition. And times like those were always turbulent. News of strange, foreign people invading the Empire troubled the locals, who feared that the newcomers would usurp their everyday life. It was felt everywhere, that the Empire was growing weaker each day, and it was only a matter of time when it would finally break under the pressure gathered on its fragile borders.

Georgios Philephebos was a blacksmith, born on Crete, but taken to Rome when the governor of the province noticed his gift and his craft. With Georgios, his entire family moved, except for his younger sister, who stayed on Crete. As soon as he came to Rome, Philephebos opened his shop for the commoners, and at the same time supplied the Roman legions. The Philephebos family adjusted well to the Roman way of life. Yet, even though they had never said it, they missed their homeland. Georgios’s sister, Philomela sent them letters each month, describing the life in the town as the time passed without them there. After four years living in Rome, Georgios sent a messenger to Crete, to bring his sister and show her their new home. When she arrived, Philomela was amazed by the great city. She was given a room with a balcony in the Philephebos’s house, so she could watch the roaring streets every night. For her, the city was a new playground that she was given to explore. The governor of Crete often visited the Philephebos family, and it was decided that Philomela returned to the island with him. The date of their return was set to be a month and a half after her arrival. It gave time to Philomela to get to know Rome as much as she could, but it also gave time to governor’s wife to develop a strong resent towards Georgios’s sister. Falsely, Lavinia thought her husband was cheating on her with Philomela, so she turned to an old friend, who was the adviser of the Emperor. He was not very popular among the senators, and consuls, but governor’s wife befriended him, knowing that some day it might be good to have someone like that on her side. It was not the first time her husband would commit adultery, and she was not without a couple affairs herself, too. But, she could not allow a peasant province girl to humiliate her, and take her place in the governor’s bed. Apparently, that day had come, when she saw a threat in Philomela. The girl from Crete suspected nothing. She enjoyed her staying at her brother’s house, played with his children, went to the market with his wife, or walked down the streets of the city. Sometimes, she helped Georgios in his shop, because their father taught them both the art of making swords, shields and armours. She loved the fire and the furnace, the sparks flying out of the steel and iron plates dipped in flames, the heat on her skin. Georgios envied her, because she proved to be a true artist with the hammer and the anvil, and whereas he was only a blacksmith, she possessed the skill of a whitesmith as well. She was the best when it came to more detailed work, so he often had to suppress his pride and call her to the forge. But, no matter how much she was good at it, their father left the business to Georgios, so she could only act as his assistant. She did not mind, though. Philomela cherished every opportunity to work with her brother and produce some of the finest pieces of weaponry. Her craft delighted the governor, and he promised that he would make sure that she opened a shop back on Crete. This only increased Lavinia’s jealousy and caused Georgios’s heart to turn greener. He loved his sister, but he could not bear the fact that she received more praise than him. He moved to Rome to continue with their father’s legacy and transfer it to the heart of the Empire, and then she simply showed up, and took his spotlight. Georgios noticed that Lavinia resented Philomela, so he decided to make a deal with the governor’s wife, to send his sister back to Crete alone. He knew that Philomela was not having an affair with the governor, but he kept that information away from Lavinia. He wanted Philomela to lose the support she had from the governor and separate the two.

“It is beneficial for both of us that the governor Atticus is replaced on Crete by someone else,” Georgios said one night when Lavinia and him met in the atrium of the patrician’s house.

“I couldn’t agree more. I would hate to see that something bad happened to your sister, so I advise you to send her back to your home island as soon as possible,” Lavinia replied. She sent all of the slaves to their chambers, and forbade them to go out until she summoned them. She did not want them to tell their master Atticus that she had a conversation with Georgios.

“We’re thinking in the same direction, honoured domina, but how can we break the connection between them? The honoured governor is more than keen on helping her and financially supporting her project on Crete. There can be only one Philephebos blacksmithing business, and it is situated in Rome at the moment,” he said.

“I could talk to the governor. Persuade him that he has had enough of Crete. But, if that doesn’t work, then I will go directly to the Emperor and ask him to give another province to my husband, and put someone else in his place. Someone I can trust, and who can keep your sister in check,” Lavinia suggested. A silhouette moved in the shadows behind the blacksmith. Georgios did not know that there were eyes watching him, listening to his words, following his moves.

“My task is to convince my sister to give up the ridiculous idea of starting her own business back home. I hope that everything will be settled in the upcoming week,” Georgios said. Lavinia did not speak for a moment. She waited the signal from behind blacksmith’s back.

“Very well,” she finally said, and walked Georgios to the exit.

“Good night,” Georgios said as he headed home. The blacksmith felt as if he was doing something terribly wrong, but on the other hand, he could not let his sister surpass him, even if she were kilometres away. It was the rule, and it was his right to carry the family tradition. Legacy could not be split in half. He thought that he had to protect his name and reputation, and he was determined to do whatever it took. Georgios was not delighted to talk to Lavinia, and he certainly did not trust her. But what else could he have done? She was the only one with enough influence. Letting her believe that Philomela and Atticus were together was a risky decision, but he had to use all the cards at his disposal. Even if it meant to associate himself with a viper such as Lavinia.

“Is he aware of what he’s asking from you?” the silhouette stepped into the beam of moonlight at centre of the atrium.

“Apparently he is not. But, that is not our concern. I want that girl dead, removed, do whatever it takes to simply make her disappear from our lives,” Lavinia said. The Basic slowly approached her and removed a lock of hair from her cheek.

“I’m not your servant, Lavinia. Remember that. You don’t have to give me commands. I’ll speak to the Emperor about your husband’s transfer. Atticus needs a new province to take care of,” the Basic said. His voice was sharp and cold.

“I know that, you don’t have to remind me. Besides, I think of you as a friend, a dearest of friends,” she said, but the trembling in her voice gave her away. She liked to have everything under control, but Aranth would often show her that she could not always get her way. That bothered her and worried her, but the Basic was too powerful and she did not want someone like that to be her enemy. They met at the inauguration of the current Emperor, and she immediately recognized him as her potential ally in the stormy days of the Empire. He did not care about the humans particularly, but he did want political power, so he found his own interest in their relationship. He needed as many connections with the noble families as he could make.

“Where is Atticus, anyway?” he asked.

“Probably with the senators, in a brothel, in some girl’s hole,” she replied.

“I’m surprised that you have so much hatred for this poor Cretan girl. If they are having an affair, what’s it to you? It’s not like you two have been saints, and faithful to each other all these years,” Aranth said.

“She is a sneaky little peasant, and I won’t be humiliated because by her. Patricia and Octavia are already spreading the rumours that I had lost my husband to that brat,” she said.

“And killing her will stop the rumours? Maybe you should better direct your anger at Patricia and Octavia,” Aranth said.

“Now you feel sorry for Philomela?” Lavinia asked him.

“I couldn’t care less, actually. It’s just that, it doesn’t seem quite logical to me… Maybe, I’m missing something,” he replied.

“You’re missing the wrath of a ridiculed wife,” she said, and pushed him away.

“So, is this only a business meeting, or we’ll take advantage of your empty bed chambers?” he teased her.

“I’m not in the mood. I have too much to think about right now,” she said.

“You’re always consumed with your little trickeries. Relax for a change. The world will not crumble if you don’t deceive at least five people every day,” he noticed.

“It’s easy for you to say. You’re a man, and you have no limits. Try walking in my shoes for just a second. We play games, and one wrong step leads you to failure,” she explained. Aranth shrugged his shoulders.

“As you wish, my dear. Lavinia, you know I’m by your side. Look, I’m about to kill a girl, who is probably innocent, and whom I don’t know, just because you asked me to do it. If you want me to, I will give you the world. Anything, just to make you less tense and worried,” Aranth said.

“It’s difficult to please me. Many have tried,” she said.

“I’m not like many,” he said and smiled. He embraced her, gently, and she felt warm and safe in his arms. Nothing mattered in that moment, and she wanted to make it last forever. But, it was impossible. She stepped back, and looked at him. Lavinia’s life was a fight, and deep down she knew that in the end it would not make a difference. Everything that she had achieved would be washed away by the waves of time. She would grow older, and her influence would decrease. Aranth was going to stay eternally young, he would be the same as he was at that point. And how could she believe his offers and his claims, when she was aware that her time would pass? Her Basic lover and friend could only watch as she started to fade and to lose her connection to this world. He could not understand her. He could not understand mortality and vulnerability.

“Good night, Aranth,” she said and left the Basic in the atrium. He then jumped on the roof of the lobby and reached the window of her bedroom.

“Are you alright? You seem distressed,” he said when she walked in. She was not exactly startled to see him there, but she was a bit uncomfortable.

“Leave me. I want to be alone,” she replied. He was confused. He could not tell why her mood changed like that.

“There is supposed to be no secrets between us. Tell me,” he said. She was suddenly depressed and quiet.

“If I tell you what’s wrong, it won’t change anything. It won’t matter. You are so powerful, yet you can’t be with me,” she said.

“What are you talking about? I am with you, always,” Aranth said.

“Now, you are. But in ten years, will you be by my side? In twenty years, when I grow old and unattractive,” she said.

“I didn’t choose to be this way, Lavinia. There are women who are the same as I am, but I don’t want them. I want you, in every physical imperfection that you humans possess. I’ll be with you till the end,” he said. His words, however, did not comfort her. How could they?

“And then what? A life of thousands of years is ahead of you. Don’t tell me I won’t be replaced,” Lavinia replied.

“Is that what troubles you? That is not important. Nothing is permanent in this world. Perhaps, one day even I and my kind will face the end. Why can’t you enjoy our time together as long as it lasts?” he said.

“Is that your answer to my pain? You are cynical and rude, Aranth,” she said angrily.

“It’s not my fault that the world is like this! Why would I apologize? I have nothing to do with it! If there was a way, I would have found it! I’ve read every book with the record of the Basic, of the vampires, of every nightly creature that might have given you the eternal life. I have nothing,” he said, shouting.

“Maybe you haven’t searched enough. Aranth… Death… Death frightens me more than anything. Not just because it means the end of my life, but because it means the end of us. Then again, perhaps death is the only answer if I never see your face,” she said and sat on the bed, numbly.

“Do you think I do not tremble before the mere mention of that day? I try to explain it to myself, to make it less painful. But, the day you let go of my hand, and when your chest stops lifting and falling, it will be the day I lose my heart,” he said and kneeled in front of her, holding her hands and covering them with his own.

“Inevitability is the worst,” she quietly replied. There was a moment of silence, and then Aranth heard the door opening downstairs.

“Your husband, he’s back,” Aranth said.

“Go, sleep well,” she said.

“And you, too,” he replied and kissed her lips, pressuring them gently. He jumped out, through the window, and Atticus stepped into the room. The Basic ran to his palace, beneath the Capitol. He had decided. He would nott rest until he found a way to make Lavinia immortal. He also feared Georgios’s retribution after he found out who was behind his sister’s murder. No doubt the blacksmith would come after them. Aranth did not worry about himself. What could one human do to him? What could a hundred humans do to him? But, Georgios could hurt her. Aranth had to protect Lavinia. He certainly could not expect that cursed Atticus to do anything. He sat behind his desk and ordered his slave to bring him paper and ink, and to light every candle in the room.

He started writing a letter to one person he knew could help him. Aranth met him when he visited Alexandria. He soon discovered that his new friend was a vampire, so the Basic felt free to tell him his own secret. The vampire’s name was Castor and he was one of the scholars at the Library, or what was left of it. At the moment, he was only a guardian of ashes, but Aranth was sure that Castor could provide him with the information he needed. Aranth wrote frantically, holding his breath, speaking the words while he spelled them. It was his last hope. He thought of calling Hotaru to his aid, another Basic, but the last time Aranth heard of him, he was somewhere in Asia, fighting Mongolian tribes. Aranth carefully sealed the letter and gave it to his slave.

“Take two more men that you can trust, and leave for Alexandria tonight. Make sure that no one recognizes you as one of my slaves. Give this to the man to whom it is addressed, and no one else. If you don’t find him, return and report, so I can plan what to do,” Aranth instructed his slave.

“Yes, domine,” the slave replied and left. Aranth stepped out on the balcony and looked at the stars. Some kilometres away, Philomela was standing on her balcony as well. It was significantly smaller than Aranth’s, but it still provided her with a nice and relaxing view. She looked at the sky, and noticed how one star was twinkling, out there in the darkness.  Aranth found it interesting. Astronomy was one of his hobbies, and he wondered what happened up there. Maybe it was not a star at all, maybe it was a speeding, moving object. Was it dying? Could a star truly die? Philomela did not know the answers to these questions. Who could notice if a star disappeared from the sky? There were so many of them. If one would go out, the night sky would still shine bright. No one would miss it. Philomela thought about death. She was young, but she lived in unstable times. Anything could happen to hear, even something deadly. Aranth thought about life. The life he wanted to give to Lavinia. One could argue that she did not deserve it. She was not the best person in the world, and Aranth was aware of that. He was prepared to go to great lengths for her, and this was just another example of that. Sometimes, he tried to escape her influence, but after a while he would come back to her. Now, because of his incapacity to distance himself from Lavinia, an innocent girl would suffer. That girl felt the cold wind from the north, and shivered. The chills, however, did not bother her so much. What troubled her was her brother’s behaviour. Lately, he had been moody and even rude to her. She could not understand why. Perhaps it was time for her to go back home. Rome was wonderful, but she missed the island, and besides she figured that she was not welcome in her brother’s house anymore. He changed. His wife was still polite to her, and she always had a moderate temper. But even she showed some resent towards Philomela. The home was far, across the sea. Bubbling, foamy water divided her from the land she loved. Perhaps, she should have simply left, packed her belongings and walked out, into the night. She would probably find a ship, ready to sail out. Philomela could not wait her voyage with the governor. He was a dear man, but she felt that she was exposing him to fowl tongues in the city. Rome was different, it was complicated. People stretched their faces into smiles in front of each other, but there was no honesty in that. It was not her world. She might have enjoyed the streets of Rome, its hills and monuments, but she realized that its true face was within the house walls. A face she was disgusted by. There was no doubt that she had to leave the city as soon as possible. Maybe the night was not the right time, but she decided to tell her brother about it when the morning comes. Aranth stayed until dawn, walking up and down his chamber, thinking about his next move. Sending a letter was a mistake. It would take too long. He should go and search for Castor.

The Basic swiftly went downstairs, to search for the slave who had the letter. Aranth hoped he had not left yet. He found him in the stables, saddling the horse.

“Stop. Give me the letter,” Aranth said, and the slave pulled back in front of him.

“Yes, domine,” the slave replied and gave the piece of paper to Aranth.

“Keep preparing the horse. I’m riding tonight. Make sure that the household stays in order until I return. If anyone asks for me, tell them that I have gone on a trip, and you don’t know when I’m coming back,” Aranth said.

“Yes, domine,” the slave said. Aranth then went back into the house, and started to prepare himself for the journey. Lavinia would have to wait. It was for her own sake. She would probably be furious to learn that he had gone without an explanation. He should face that problem when he returns. When he came back with the answer, perhaps Lavinia would give up the ridiculous idea of killing that girl. Aranth saw her the other day in the market. He followed Lavinia’s instructions and found her, to get to know his new victim. She was so gracious, so lovely, walking among stacks, merchants and customers. He mourned her, he mourned her blood flowing under his feet.

Aranth took everything he needed and returned to the stables. He mounted the horse, and nodded to the slave. The Basic made the horse immediately gallop, and the slave watched as dust rose behind his master. He would ride all night, until the horse became exhausted. Then, Aranth would feed. And in the morning, he would already speak to Castor. If he came back to Rome with good news, he would call Lavinia to inform her. If not, he would simply kill the girl, and that would be the final favour he would do for his lover. Then, he would be forced to watch his beloved rot and die. Knowing her, Lavinia would probably make him go away, leave her to her human nature. Where could he go when it happens? He could move north, and west, to meet the one who was the first. Aranth was reached by rumours that she had lived among the folks settled in Britain. He heard they worshipped her, adored her. That was no peculiarity. Her presence would always make all the creatures in the known world like her, with pure heart and unsolicited. He saw her only once during their long lives, while humans were still scattered all over the planet, unorganized and frightened. The first Basic seemed confused and worried. She did not quite fit in, and she was reclusive, unwilling or shy to speak with the rest of her kind.

Aranth forced his horse forward, refusing to stop and let the animal rest. The dawn was just about to break, when the horse slowed down, stumbled, and then fell on the ground, pulling down the Basic as well. Aranth set himself free from the saddle and watched his horse breath loudly and with a lot of effort. The animal opened and closed its eyes, each time with a longer period in between. It put its head on the grass, and listened as the Basic leaned over it. That horse was good. Aranth bought him from a Persian horse master the year before. He remembered the first time he saw its black mane, silky and soft, shinning in the sun. But, the Basics were predators, and they were rather concerned with the taste of their food than with its looks. Aranth gently touched the animal’s neck and opened his mouth wide, displaying long, sharp fangs in his upper jaw. The horse became suddenly disturbed, by both the sight of hungry Aranth and the proximity of death. But, there was little it could do. The Basic held it down, against the ground with great force, so it could barely move. The first bite was quick. The fangs pierced the skin and the main neck vessel was broken. The blood splattered over Aranth’s face and into his mouth. Horse’s legs stretched as a reflex reaction, and its body cramped. The animal was too tired to defend itself. The Basic drank its blood, aggressively. The horse died somewhere in the middle of Basic’s feeding.

He took the horse by its legs, and dragged it to the stream he saw beneath the hill. He pushed the body of the animal into the nearby bushes, and then used the water from the stream to wash his hands and face. He felt the energy of life flowing through him, strengthening him. There was no need for him to go to the ports and wait for a ship to sail out. He had enough power to swim across the Mediterranean and reach Alexandria before the next morning. He would surely be exhausted, but Castor knew how to take care of him. Aranth started running, the space around him became just a blurred set of lines, stretched to the maximum. He heard the seagulls, and waves below them. He jumped, high into the air, and dived into the sea. His strokes were swift and sharp. Like a knife, he cut through the clear blue water, with only one thought on his mind. He had to find a way to give Lavinia immortality and cure her sorrow with that gift.

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